by Martin Porter
Martin Porter is a contributing editor for PCjr. He also writes on video, computers and popular music for Gentleman's Quarterly, PC, Rolling Stone and the New York Post.
For a microcomputer system to come close to crossing the line between illusion and reality, something has to be added to put more detail into the monitor's picture. That something is the video disk, with its unrivaled picture quality and storage capacity.
First introduced as a passive movie-playing device that could bring the "magic" of The Godfather and Star Wars into our living rooms, the video disk's greatest potential was always as a picture storage medium "intelligently" controlled by a computer or providing data to the computer for its own purposes. One video disk, for example, can contain as much information as six thousand floppy disks.
The instant access made possible by the computer/video disk connection also allows the user to add a new dimension to traditional story lines. Any program can be accessed in a variety of ways, allowing "readers" to express their individual preferences and satisfy their personal needs. Thousands of individual frames and hundreds of different scenes can be called up at a whim and the touch of the right keys. Thus the computer and video disk allow people to talk back to their once authoritarian television sets, expressing free will and injecting discretion into program material that previously could only be linear in order and passive in use. The possibilities for interactive narratives, tutorials and environments are just becoming evident.
For an integrated computer/video disk system, you need three ingredients: a personal computer with some sort of interface port, an interface circuit and an interactive disk player. The video disk/computer millennium, delayed by lack of standardization in interface circuitry and the high cost of first-generation video disk players, is now at hand. The demise of RCA's inexpensive SelectaVision players may have hastened the process by leaving the way open for Pioneer's more versatile (and more expensive) laser disk format.
Up from the Arcades
The average consumer's first exposure to the potential of video disk/computer interaction has been in the video arcades. In 1983 Dragon's Lair, an action-packed adventure game with animated cartoon-style graphics, became the first video disk arcade game. Despite its annoying delay between scenes, it became an arcade hit and Coleco licensed the game as the first video disk offering for their home computers.
In rapid succession, improved video disk-based games made their appearance in the arcades. Such pioneering efforts as M.A.C.H. 3 and Firefox showed the possibilities of combining computer-generated graphics with "live-action" sequences read from video disk without delay between scenes. National Football League Films, long a leader in home video distribution, has introduced an arcade football game on an interactive video disk using taped footage of over two hundred plays in a head-to-head encounter between the San Diego Chargers and Los Angeles Raiders.
The quality of video disk imagery lends itself to realistic simulations of any real-life situation, whether current events or ancient history. By allowing players to wend their way through such situations, video games can be educational as well as entertaining.
The future of the computer/video disk interface as an informational tool was hinted at as far back as 1977, when a team of programmers and artists from M.I.T. created the Aspen Movie Map. With this disk, you find yourself driving on a main street of Aspen, Colorado, taking detours at any intersection by touching an arrow on the monitor screen. If you want to know more about an intriguing landmark, you place your finger on the building on-screen; instantly you are inside and listening to a sound track explain pertinent details about the edifice. If you want to see how a street corner looks at night, you can so instruct the screen and presto-chango: pitch dark. To avoid getting lost, you can request your location on a detailed city map. You can also access specific attractions from a map menu and wander the streets of the metropolis, enjoying (for example) the treasures of a world-renowned museum without leaving your armchair.
The Simutron Tournament Center in San Diego is the first facility devoted exclusively to the potential of computer/video disk interface for entertainment environments. Players rent time on a Simutron system for $3 per fifteen minutes of play, then enter the gaming area through an airlock. Seating themselves in a darkened, soundproof cockpit, they face four color video monitors, experience the ambience of quadrophonic surround sound and grasp a professional-grade joystick. The game that unfolds is the video disk version of the movie Star Trek adapted for computer game play. Utilizing the special effects from this box-office blockbuster (i.e., time-warp drives, intergalactic explosions, digitally recorded sound), the game challenges players to pit their wits against the master computer or against any of eight opponents also playing at the Simutron center. This is the first of a series of video disk-enhanced computer games that will also include footage from the science-fantasy movies Tron and Excalibur.
One of the most extensive uses of the video disk/ computer connection is suitably at Walt Disney's Environmental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) in Orlando, Florida. Scattered through the 250acre complex are thirty Worldkey kiosks, designed jointly by Disney and Bell Labs, that serve as information guides to the park and its attractions. A finger planted on the video screen activates the animation, which features a character named Bit reciting a monologue about EPCOT and its wonders. If you want to learn more about the Journey into Imagination or any other structure at EPCOT, just touch the building on the screen as it scrolls by and the picture immediately switches to a segment detailing that attraction, inside and out.
Round and Round
Now picture a chemistry professor on-screen, instructing his video class in the mixture of two highly lethal chemicals. The students can actually see the proper way of pouring, the correct amounts and the color of the chemicals. This is one of many educational video disk/computer lessons that are being developed at the University of Nebraska, under the direction of Rod Daynes. The team has developed over fifty programs for government and private industry clients by interfacing a Radio Shack TRS-80 with a Pioneer industrial disk player.
Personal computer and video disk applications are becoming so intertwined that the two technologies will no longer be seen as peripheral to each other. Even now, a disk is being developed that will record and play back video, audio and computer information on the same surface. When this new technology becomes widely available, it will make possible that dream of consumer electronics enthusiasts, the integrated home entertainment center with interactive picture and sound.
The success of the video disk/computer connection then will depend on the creativity of a new generation of "writers" who will develop software applications that tap the creative potential of this technology. Unlike previous forms of expression, there will be no fixed formulas. The very appeal of these new machines will lie in their providing for alternatives to current artistic genres.
A visit to Washington's National Gallery of Art at the push of a button and a spin of VPI's video disk.
From day one, young children absorb knowledge via their eyes and ears. By age three, they have become marvelous parallel processors of visual and sound data, connecting the meanings and relationships of many simultaneous happenings. If you want to know just how marvelous, compare a three-year-old's capacity for recognition and reaction with that of a fancy, high-priced robot. There is no contest!
So what do we do with our precious, parallel-processing preschoolers? We send them to school, and for the next twelve years or more we drone at them with serial information: text out of books, classroom step-by-step presentations, etc., etc. Now, there is obviously no way around learning the three Rs. But that doesn't mean we have to force our kids to stop using the learning method of which they are already sophisticated practitioners. We do show them illustrations of paintings, historical scenes; we do use diagrams, sketches and so on to illustrate science subjects. But what ties all these pictures together? Serial information again: words, words, words!
If you were taking American History II, which approach would bring home more vividly just what Benjamin Franklin was doing in Paris to help us toward independence: fifteen pages in your textbook or a three-minute visual reenactment of Franklin practicing his magic charm on the court of France? This is the classic case of parallel, multilevel processing, of new information vs. trying to internalize the same body of facts via serial data absorption.
The message is clear: involving all the faculties simultaneously through active imagery and sound is the only way to communicate if you want rapid, efficient information transfer-and interactivity. Interactivity is the cement that makes it all stick better on an individual level. Interactivity means getting involved in more than viewing and absorbing by viewing; it means reinforcing the learning process by putting to work the information you've just been exposed to.
What I'm describing here, namely, interactive programs using copious high-quality video graphics under computer control, cannot be possible on a wide scale unless the video disk/home computer connection is promoted. The high-priced experimental interactive systems in labs like M.I.T.'s Architecture Machine Group, and the simple-minded video disk arcade games like Dragon's Lair, will have to give way to affordable home interactive video disk and educational systems.
The technical prerequisites for an effective video disk/home computer connection include: synchronization of the video disk delivery system with that of the computer-generated graphics; keying computer-generated graphics over the disk's video information; downloading data from the video disk into the computer, either periodically or in real time; handling the disk player functions PLAY, STOP, SEARCH, etc., under program or keyboard control. All these technical points have been addressed in interface hardware and software that will make possible the video disk/home computer connection.
On the horizon is a revolution in how Americans (and others) will learn, train and play at home. Continuing education, professional enhancement and certification training will be radically affected by interactive video technology. Most important, however, is the prospect of broad-based elementary and high school learning in which a substantial part of both classroom and home reading activities are replaced by interactive video systems affordable to all.
RALPH BAER, manager of consumer product development, Sanders Associates
|THE DIGITAL AUDIO DISK
Thanks to microchip accuracy, home listeners can now enjoy audio quality never before heard outside the concert hall. On the verge of replacing turntables and LPs, the new digital players can transform signals from laser-encoded compact disks (CDs) into full-blown orchestras or blown-out rock bands with none of the snaps, crackles and pops generally associated with analog sound.
The original music is "sampled" by computer and converted into a binary digital code consisting of two forms of information: the proverbial 1 or 0, or in this case "pits" or "no pits" on the surface of the disk. The currently prevailing playback system utilizes a laser that samples 44,100 of these tiny indentations per second and converts them into a code of 16 binary digits (over 1,400,000 bits per second). Computer control speed and laser accuracy are partners in the scheme that requires fifteen billion "pits" of information for one hour of music. The laser beam measures 1.7 microns wide and is so precise that nothing but a "pit" can cause the deviation required to make digital sound.
Compact disk players are a true product of the digital age for reasons other than sonic quality. These new music boxes can repeat or locate any selection at the flick of a preprogrammed switch, and no longer will we have to flip the record (all the information is stored on one side of the 43/4-inch disk). In addition, while a digital readout on the front plate keeps us up to date on the program's status (what track is being played, how much playing time remains, etc.), the CD can be played endlessly without wear.
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