News from CES and Macworld

1993 enters with a clash between two giant expos

First of all, we’d like to offer a great big “thanks a bunch” to Mitch Hall Associates and the Electronic Industries Association, who managed to schedule two of the industry’s biggest trade shows right smack on top of each other this year, and the week after New Year’s to boot.

Other than that, however, there was certainly enough excitement to go around. The two product stories that made the biggest splashes — 3DO from the winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and the Apple Adjustable Keyboard — are discussed elsewhere in this issue. But here’s a glance at the other tidbits of interest from the Digital Media editorial staff.

PDAS FOR DAYS, WE TELL YA!

Whether you call them personal digital assistants (PDAs), personal information processors (PIPs) or “Wizards on Steroids,” the next generation of pocket organizers is on the horizon — well, maybe make that just over the horizon. Both Tandy/Casio and Apple/Sharp gave product updates to the press at winter CES last week, showing working prototypes of the new devices but revealing precious little in the way of specifics.

The Tandy/Casio partnership yielded a first look at Zoomer, a jacket pocket-size device with a stylus. The device runs under GeoWorks’ GEOS operating system, which was designed for such devices and consumes a remarkably small amount of power (the three AAA batteries last for up to 100 hours under normal usage).

Palm Computing of Palo Alto, CA, created the initial applications and the handwriting recognition software. Tandy and Casio also announced new application partners America Online (see p. 27) and Intuit (makers of the popular Quicken program), which will be developing communications and financial analysis applications respectively.

Zoomer’s interface allows the user to enter data in one of three ways: electronic “ink,” text or keyboard. Data either can be stored in the user’s handwriting, the machine can interpret the handwriting and store the data as text, or the user can enter text using a “virtual” keyboard and stylus.

Each data field will accept either text or “ink,” although only text is searchable. In this way, the Zoomer product reduces the reliance on handwriting recognition and the delays associated with interpretation. Each individual decides how he or she wants to store the information.

But how’s this for specific: Zoomer is expected to be released “this summer,” according to Tandy’s Howard Elias, with a list price that’ll be “closer to $600 than it is to $1,000.”

NEWTON: A STUDY IN VAGUENESS

Something must have invaded the Las Vegas water supply and made vendors incapable of forming sentences with actual facts in them. Though it was clear that Apple and Sharp had made a lot of progress since John Sculley announced Newton technology at summer CES in Chicago, the Newton update in Las Vegas was a study in vagueness.

Here’s a loose quote from Apple’s new vice president and general manager of Personal Interactive Electronics, Gaston Bastiaens: “We will be releasing a family of Newton products (Q: How many? A: Several.) sometime in the middle to end of 1993, at a price somewhere less than $1,000.” Okay, yes, thank you very much.

Sharp and Apple demonstrated a working, “no wires” prototype of the Newton and of the “data soup” concept that’s central to its operating system (see Vol. 2, No. 7, p. 24). All data entered on the scratch pad is placed in context by the device and acted upon. For example, a small graphic and a note can be faxed to a colleague by simply writing “fax Bob.” The Newton will automatically search the database for all Bobs and allow the user to choose the correct one. It will then take the page and process it for sending.

This kind of system requires far more processing overhead than Zoomer, as all handwritten data must be interpreted. Apple’s handwriting recognition technology is impressive, but it considerably slows down the process of data entry, and must also pull hard on the device’s processing power: Newton is likely to last for only about eight hours between recharges.

Communications are critical to this new class of product, and both Newton and Zoomer are expected to include a number of telecom options. Both have infrared connections, for “squirting” business cards between devices, and both will be able to link to pager networks or modems through either serial ports or add-in PCMCIA cards.

In addition, Apple has an agreement with Motorola to provide a radio-based receiver for wireless messaging. Both devices will be able to connect to personal computers, Macintosh or Intel-based, for exchanging information.

Bubble-busting. One question that comes to mind, however, is whether the two competing devices will be able to share information with each other. Assuming that the infrared protocols are the same, it would be up to the individual vendors involved to ensure that the data is compatible (which shouldn’t be too difficult considering most of it is ASCII text or bitmaps anyway). If this is truly going to be a new class of products for professionals (and rich consumers), everyone involved had better treat it as a single market, or the splinters will burst everyone’s bubbles.

RADIO DATA BROADCAST SYSTEM DEBUTS

The Electronics Industries Association (EIA) and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) demonstrated the first iterations of the Radio Broadcast Data System at this year’s CES.

RDBS is a digital signal, carried on a sub-band of conventional FM radio channels. It allows programmers to transmit station information, such as call letters or program format, as well as allowing public agencies to broadcast traffic or weather bulletins. Promoters say that it’s a good first step to all-digital radio broadcasting, which is certainly in the cards.

The FCC has recently announced a revamping of the Emergency Broadcast System that will utilize RDBS, and will be fully implemented in the U.S. by the end of 1994. Because of the ability to transmit digital data, an RDBS car or home radio can be commanded to turn on and/or switch stations (and increase volume levels) to receive emergency information.

Winter CES was the first showing of RDBS-compatible home and auto radios, as well as the announcement of 42 radio stations around the country that are already broadcasting the signal. RDBS radios all have at least an eight-character display; circuitry to receive the digital signal only costs about $8. RE America, Inc., which manufactures the receiver silicon, hopes to have the entire package down to a single chip by the end of the year. The encoder/broadcast system is quite inexpensive as well, at less than $2,500, and NAB believes the FCC may require radio stations to have the equipment on site.

There was a demonstration of an RDBS-compatible home smoke detector, complete with a speaker, that is designed to be individually programmed for individual homes and/or entire cities. “You could wake up 80 million people and speak to them through their smoke detectors!” said an RDBS promoter proudly.

Supposedly the addresses of individual smoke detectors would be held by the local civil defense agencies, but more than one skeptic at the press conference rolled his eyes thinking about what a Captain Midnight-style prankster — the guy who took over the cable airwaves a few years ago — could do with such a database.

But even without the weird smoke detectors, we predict that pirate radio hobbyists are going to have a field day with RDBS.

SKY KING DROPS SKYPIX REORG PLAN, DIRECTV ANNOUNCES PROGRAMMING

We came across an interesting tidbit at CES: the news that Paul Allen’s Sky King Investment Corp., one of the largest investors in the failing SkyPix Corp., has withdrawn its Chapter 11 reorganization plan that it had submitted to the Bankruptcy Court. In a prepared statement, Sky King president William Savoy said, “This action allows the Bankruptcy Court to consider the plans submitted by the SkyPix entities without also having to consider the alternative Sky King plan.”

The hearing is scheduled for Jan. 19 in Seattle bankruptcy court. Though Sky King is as closed-mouthed as usual about its connection with SkyPix, we are speculating that Allen hopes the court rejects SkyPix’s reorganization plan so he can come in and scoop up the technology at bargain-basement prices. In another direct quote from a prepared statement: “Mr. Savoy noted that despite withdrawing its reorganization plan, Sky King continues to be interested in applications of digital transmission technology.”

You betcha, especially since Hughes Communications’ DirecTV is starting to rack up programming for its satellite distribution network. At CES, the company announced that it had signed a pay-per-view deal with Paramount Pictures for theatrical films and special events. It also announced a programming distribution deal with The Disney Channel, and will be marketing 19 other cable programming services in rural areas under an agreement with the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative.

NEW PLAYER FOR DEAD FORMATS

Pioneer introduced a new multiformat “combi-player” that enables the user to play a host of optical formats, including a number of new laserdisc formats created in conjunction with NEC and Sega.

In addition to all the analog laserdisc formats, the player accepts audio CDs, Sega CD or NEC TurboGraphics CD-ROMs, and new laserdisc formats that fall under the Pioneer brand name “LaserActive.”

LaserActive discs come in two flavors, Mega-LD (compatible with Sega formats), and LD-ROM2 (compatible with NEC), and include digital data tracks along with the analog laserdisc video. This enables developers to create titles that combine digital data (text, animations or overlay graphics) with the analog video background.

Quite honestly, this product is about as useless as a screen door on a submarine. While laserdisc has seen a renaissance of sorts recently (sales are slowly but steadily rising), it will be a doomed format as digital video technologies — compact disc, digital videotape or broadcast — take center stage.

Creating new variations of the formats, which are not usable anywhere else, appears to be the height of futility. In addition, a third of the new offerings, the NEC-compatible products, are stillborn: TurboGraphics is running a very distant third to Nintendo and Sega in terms of game platforms.

WHOLE LOTTA VIDEO AT MACWORLD EXPO

The professional digital video crowd was brought to its collective knees (literally, since the booth space was so crowded) while checking out After Effects, the digital post-production compositing software for the Macintosh from CoSA (the Company of Science and Art), based in Providence, RI.

After Effects is a QuickTime-based application that lets individuals combine, layer and composite an unlimited number of movies — of different frame sizes and aspect ratios — and PICT images in a single window. The program immediately shows the outcome of the effect without having to render a new movie or wade through a series of dialog boxes.

Video editors from Disney, Colossal Pictures and Paramount Pictures as well as many successful independent video producers, who were gathered in the CoSA booth, compared After Effects’ capabilities favorably to the functionality of a Harry Suite, a $100,000-plus, high-end post-production system.

Some of the more impressive features include support for time-based effects, so that video editors can change special effects over time using key frames; support for Adobe Premiere and Photoshop filters (as well as its own effects); and high-quality output since the program uses sophisticated rendering techniques (subpixel positioning and full anti-aliasing) to ensure smooth motion when a digital video is “printed” to an analog videotape.

After Effects was released at the show for $899; as of February, the list price will increase to $1,295. The application comes bundled with SuperMac Technology’s $5,999 DigitalFilm video editing system.

AVID DOES EDITING RIGHT WITH NEW DESKTOP SYSTEM

The Avid Media Suite Pro, introduced at the Expo, is the closest thing yet to the way we always thought video editing should be done. Developed by Avid Technology of Tewksbury, MA, makers of high-end, offline digital video editing systems, Media Suite Pro is a true full-screen, full-motion “desktop” computer-based video editing suite for less than $10,000.

The $9,995 package consists of four Macintosh Nubus boards, cables and software as well as an abundance of tutorials, both print and videotape. And while it is not priced for the neophyte videographer interested in exploring digital video — you still must supply the Macintosh (a Quadra, please), external storage system and monitor setup — it does provide video professionals with features they cannot find on other digital video editing suites at that price.

Avid’s desktop system supports real, full-frame 30-fps NTSC or 25-frame-per-second PAL video (no line doubling or other tricks); on-the-fly JPEG compression/decompression (a two-gigabyte disk holds 30 minutes of video); SMPTE time code; four tracks of 44.1-KHz, 16-bit audio (full CD quality); full random access digital video and audio editing down to the frame level, which appears to combine great ease of use with professional-level precision; 32 levels of undo and redo, which makes it easier to experiment with offline edits; a decent library of transition effects; an integrated title generator with fully anti-aliased support for TrueType and PostScript fonts; and Avid’s WordPlot display, which shows each word in a sound track as a horizontal black bar. (This is great for helping you locate your mark in and out points or key frames.)

The Media Suite Pro can import PICT, PICS, Photo CD and Autodesk animation files. It can export QuickTime movies, PICT images of still frames, PICS animations and CD audio.

NEWTEK AND FAST’S DUELING VIDEO SWITCHERS

Somebody planning floor space for Macworld expo obviously had some fun positioning NewTek Inc., the Topeka, KS, company responsible for the Video Toaster, a broadcast-quality video editing system (which did more for the Amiga computer than Commodore ever could) next to its new rival, Fast Electronic, the digital video wunder company from Germany.

Members from each technology team had a field day checking out the competition next door as each group demonstrated its combination digital video effects system, switcher, title generator and audio mixer for the Macintosh. (In both cases the company created the original system for a PC.)

Although Video Toaster has a proven track record and has received much attention from the press as well as producers in Hollywood and New York, it was the Video Machine from Fast that captured the attention of the video crowd. (Perhaps it was because NewTek did the same Video Toaster spiel it has done for the past several industry trade shows.)

Video Machine is a single-board analog editing system that works from videotape decks. Using it, you can combine video with special effects and transitions, computer graphics, titles, animations and music clips from CDs, digital sound files and MIDI equipment. The company claims to have an additional board for full digital video editing, but at this point it can’t even release Video Machine into the United States since it is still awaiting approval from the FCC.

As a final note, rumors are afloat that Fast plans to license a 3D rendering program to bundle with Video Machine if and when it is shipped in the United States.

TELECONFERENCING FROM THE DESKTOP

ShareVision Corp. is shipping ShareView Plus, its hardware and software technology for delivering voice, data and video communication between two Macintoshes over ordinary (POTS) phone lines.

The whole setup, which lists for $4,499, includes a small video camera that sits on top of your Mac and a lightweight, unobtrusive headset as well as ShareVision’s proprietary software technology. The company demonstrated its videoconferencing system on the show floor, calling its San Jose office.

Individuals using the technology can establish normal voice communication through an auto-dialer phone interface on their screen and a hands-free phone speaker and microphone. If the recipient of the call is equipped with ShareView, the caller can then press the Connect button and have the systems set up direct digital contact. This takes 14 seconds for the modems to set up 14.4-kilobit communications, according to ShareVision.

In the digital communication mode, voice is now handled digitally. In addition to voice capabilities users have the ability to collaborate on the same files via a shared “whiteboard” and by creating a “window” that is drawn on screen. (Drawing on the Whiteboard is slow, and the markers used to make notations have very broad tips, so they are not very precise.)

The video capabilities provided in ShareView Plus enable connected parties to see each other in little video windows on screen. (The 14.4-kilobit bandwidth is automatically allocated between audio, shared display screens and video. The video frame rate ranges from 5 fps to 12 fps. We saw mostly 5 to 6 fps transmissions that were very jaggy.)

Going to Windows. It is no secret that since John Meyer, one of the founders and visionaries behind Ventura Software, became president and CEO of ShareVision, the company has made a commitment to bring its technology to the PC. We can expect a Windows version of ShareView Plus within the next six months.

CLI DEMOS VIDEO PHONE OVER ISDN

Not be outdone by ShareVision, Compression Labs called France and Japan during Macworld to demonstrate its desktop videoconferencing system that operates over standard ISDN telephone lines.

The Cameo Personal Video phone system uses the same video technology that CLI developed for the AT&T VideoPhone 2500 — which AT&T dropped in price by about $500 during Macworld Expo. It comes in several different configurations, including the one demonstrated: a Model 2001 for the Macintosh, a Camera Module and a Planet ISDN Nubus card from Euronis, which is now compatible with ISDN-1, the U.S. standard adopted by AT&T, Northern Telecom and Siemens Stromberg-Carlson.

Unlike the ShareVision technology, the CLI system does not provide a shared workspace or whiteboard for collaborative work. It does, however, produce considerably higher-quality images and offer a more acceptable frame rate (15 fps on average). The major obstacle to CLI’s technology at this point is that it requires use of a 56-kilobit ISDN phone line, and they are not exactly widespread at this point. (International connectivity is certified to 17 countries only.)

The CLI system is designed to be used with a Macintosh IIci, IIfx, Quadra and Duo (when equipped with Docking Unit) running System 7.

David Baron, Denise Caruso, Janice Maloney