1992 Discover Awards: Sight

Thursday, October 01, 1992
RELATED TAGS: GADGETS
The television is among the most passive devices ever invented. Since the late 1940s hundreds of millions of viewers have been at the receiving end of a one-way conversation, their only role being to occasionally switch channels or zap commercials. With the arrival of the VCR, viewer input advanced to some extent, but the net result is still the same: we sit like sponges in front of the tube.

But imagine, if you will, a different scenario: Instead of sitting idly on the couch, you embark on an active journey of discovery, with your television as portal to the world. Wander freely through the cultural and artistic treasures of the 13 museums of the Smithsonian Institution; attend a series of interactive workshops on modern photographic techniques; learn how to play jazz guitar with stop-action demonstrations by professional musicians. Or if you’re in a more athletic mood, hone your golf skills with a round at Palm Springs’s toughest holes. With the new home multimedia system from Philips, the Dutch consumer electronics giant, such inspiring uses of television are already attainable.

Innovative uses for our TV sets have been few and far between. But in the mid-1980s, savvy researchers realized that many of the positive qualities of the day’s emerging technologies--personal computers, compact discs, and Nintendo-style video games--could be blended with the ubiquitous and easy-to-use home television set.

The engineers at Philips Consumer Electronics in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, were among the first to capitalize on this new vision. The system they created, called Compact Disc-Interactive, or CD-I, is sparking an interactive revolution in the way we learn about the world, entertain ourselves, and conduct business.

CD-I evolved out of the tremendous success of the digital compact audio disc, introduced by Philips in 1982. Providing near-perfect sound reproduction, fast access to any track on the disc, mass storage capacity, and exceptional longevity, CDs are now the most popular medium for music reproduction. According to Harry Lakerveld, Philips’s director of interactive media systems and leader of the CD-I development team, CD-I was the next logical step for us. We felt strongly that viewers should control their own viewing experiences.

Philips’s new CD-I unit resembles a typical home audio CD player, and the system’s CD-I program discs are identical in size and appearance to standard five-inch audio CDs. But rather than disgorging only digital music, the CD-I player hooks easily to a television set and generates full- color digital video, lively animation sequences, complex graphics, detailed still images, and reams of text.

Users maneuver through CD-I program discs with a small remote- control joystick (called a thumbstick in Philips’s jargon) and simple point-and-click controls included with the player. Philips has already cataloged nearly 125 interactive games and entertainment, sports, reference, self-enrichment, how-to, and children’s programs, each offering an unprecedented degree of listening and viewing flexibility.

From the moment he loads a CD-I software disc, a user is prompted to enter into a dialogue with the machine. The program disc asks on-screen questions and proposes actions, always assuring that the user is the director of what he or she accesses.

Viewers make their selections by moving an on-screen cursor onto command areas that appear when needed on the TV screen. In addition, users can interrupt the running sequence of a program to recall a certain choice, go back to a previous step, ask for more information, or even have the machine explain what to do in another language.

With the CD-I educational disc Treasures of the Smithsonian, for example, you wander through the institution’s galleries viewing artwork and exhibits, including those not normally on display. Jumping between museums that are in reality miles apart, you can interact with all they offer: play early American musical instruments, fly vintage aircraft, walk around statues, access important statistics and historical data, and explore unexpected links between objects.

In Time-Life Photography, users practice taking pictures with a simulated on-screen camera. The camera instantly develops pictures reflecting the aperture, shutter speed, and film type. Mistakes show up immediately on the screen, and experts comment on how to improve upon the work. With ABC Sports: The Palm Springs Open, golfers choose clubs, react to changing weather conditions, and see their ball fly against a backdrop of actual course footage.

With so much interactivity and viewer choice built into each program, the Philips design team’s greatest challenge was cramming the information onto a disc. Each CD-I program disc can hold 650 megabytes of digital information: that’s up to 250,000 typed pages of text, 7,000 photographic-quality images, 19 hours of speech, or 72 minutes of full- screen, full-motion animation.

By reducing the library of data to only the most crucial elements through a process called digital data compression, Philips’s engineers were able to fit the wealth of choices on just a single disc. To interweave video, sound, and text, Lakerveld’s team began with the same CD-ROM (Read Only Memory) technology used in computer storage data devices. They then added a new software driver to generate a real time response for all the distinct streams of data. We’re confident our format will become the standard for all interactive program developers, Lakerveld says.

The CD-I player should already be available at your local consumer electronics store for around $800. Interactive programs vary in price from about $20 to $60.

Larry McMillan, project leader at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York, for the develop-ment of the Digital Camera System. The system starts with a standard Nikon F3 and converts it into a high-resolution digital camera. Instead of using film, the new camera captures images electronically. These digital images can be accessed im-mediately, manipulated by a computer, transmitted over phone lines, and compressed for storage. The system includes a compact camera-back attachment with a 1.3- million-pixel sensor and a separate digital storage unit and display screen. While most experts expect digital photography eventually to become the norm, pho-tographers, especially professionals, are loath to replace all their expensive conventional equipment. Kodak’s clever new system enables professionals to continue to use their favorite cameras and lenses while still taking advantage of the conveniences inher-ent in electronic imaging.

Kevin Hussey, supervisor of the visualization and earth sciences applications group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, for the development of the dramatic Videos from Space. Hussey’s system takes remotely sensed data collected from NASA’s Earth and planetary probes and converts them into 3-D video presentations that simulate overflights of distant bodies in the solar system, including Venus, Mars, the asteroid belt, even far-flung Neptune. The videos bring the static data collected by the probes alive for children and scientists alike: both can study, for example, the atmospheric dynamics of Jupiter or the complex volcanic activity on its moon Io.

Masaaki Tsukamoto, chief Nikonos designer at Nikon in Tokyo, for the development of the Nikonos RS AF underwater 35mm camera system. The world’s first autofocus 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR) camera for underwater use is more compact, easier to handle, and requires less maintenance than any other underwater SLR camera system. Using conventional underwater cameras with clumsy viewfinders, photographers can only get a rough idea of what their final picture will look like. Other photographers bring their ter-restrial SLRs underwater inside bulky, hard-to-manipulate housings. The Nikonos, however, enables the underwater photographer to quickly compose and visually confirm focus directly through its lens.

James Fergason, president of Optical Shields in Menlo Park, California, for the development of Varilite Vision Panels, marketed by Taliq of Sunnyvale, California. At the flip of a switch, these electronic windows for office and automotive use go from transparent to frosted translucent. The windows’ opacity is controlled by a thin layer of liquid crystals in a film sandwiched between two layers of glass. The Varilite panels provide instant privacy, glare reduction, and security without the distraction of shutters and drapes.
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