CES highlights. (Winter Consumer Electronics Show)
by David English
What do you get when you combine the world's most surreal city with the nation's largest consumer electronics show? Winter CES, of course. It's when over 90,000 trend followers converge on Las Vegas to see what's new in cellular phones, wide-screen television, satellite receivers, videogames, computer software, and other electronic products.
This year, a lot of the CES gossip focused on the announcement of 3DO (pronounced "three-dee-oh"), a new CD-based entertainment platform that will be available this fall for under $700. 3DO is actually the product of a coalition of four companies: Electronic Arts (the successful computer- and videogame company), Time Warner (the entertainment and cable-TV company), Matsushita (which owns Panasonic and the Hollywood giant, MCA), and Kleiner Perkins (the venture-capital firm that helped launch Lotus and Compaq).
What makes the people at 3DO think their home-CD system can succeed where others have failed? The 3DO box contains a fast 32-bit processor, as well as special chips that independently process the animation, graphics, and sound. The prototype I saw at the Panasonic booth could easily handle high-resolution animation and full-motion video. In addition, the 3DO machine can grab its programs from a cable-TV hookup as well as from its built-in CD drive, 3DO even plans to ship a plug-in board that will bring its technology to the PC.
Other innovative hardware at CES included the UltraSound 3D sound card from Advanced Gravis. Similar to the new Q-Sound technology, UltraSound 3D provides the sensation of 360-degree sound from just two speakers. For example, you might hear an airplane swoop down behind you, pass through your head, and emerge to the front and right of you. I was genuinely confused when they put the motorcycle sound on--I wasn't sure whether it was coming from the headphones or from inside the building. The real kicker was the sound of a dentist's drill, which was almost too painful to experience. Unlike Q-Sound, Ultra-Sound 3D works with headphones. It should be available by the time you read this for $249. According to the company, over 25 software developers will support the new 3-D technology, including Electronic Arts and Sierra.
On the software front, l*MOTION showed Alone in the Dark, which has some of the best 3-D character animation I've seen. As is the case with many of the new games, the backgrounds are bitmapped, while the characters and moving objects are generated with polygons. For this program, the developers combined fast polygon animation with rotoscoping to create lifelike movements. It's available now.
Speaking of advanced 3-D animation, I was surprised to see a first-rate multimedia CD-ROM product from Revell-Monogram, the world's leading manufacturer of plastic model kits. Shipping this summer, Power Modeler uses eye-popping 3-D graphics to help you build exotic sports cars and high-tech aircraft. It comes with one model, but you can easily buy the other models at toy stores and hobby shops. Once you've completed the models, the program lets you race them in its driving and flight simulator games.
Interplay used a 3-D mouse to demo its new multimedia CD-ROM game, StepStone. Like Virgin Games' upcoming 7th Guest, Interplay's StepStone is designed especially for CD-ROM with full-motion video characters, high-resolution backgrounds, and a full movielike musical score. It's truly impressive, and it's scheduled to ship sometime this summer.
Electronic Arts (EA) brought in the world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, to show off his new chess game, Kasparov's Gambit. It has an especially strong tutorial and stunning Super VGA graphics. For a chess game from the other side of the tracks, check out National Lampoon's ChessMeister 5 Billion and 1, from Spectrum HoloByte. It's Battle Chess meets Animal House. It's definitely crude, rude, and lewd.
EA is also starting its own line of educational software, called EA*Kids. The five titles cover every age group from 3 to 14 and range from an environmentally correct zoo ride to a program that lets you create your own music videos.
Other exciting software products shown at CES included LucasArts Games' X-Wing (a heart-stopping space-combat game, based on the Star Wars star fighter), Broderbund's Where in Space Is Carmen Sandiego? (looks like the best Carmen yet), Mallard Software's Air Traffic Controller and Lunar Command (the company's first two stand-alone simulators), Origin's Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (with a terrific continuous-movement 3-D dungeon), Amtek's Tristan (a dynamite computer pinball game), Spirit of Discovery's Beat the House (the best gambling simulator and trainer), Konami's Air Warrior (the first Super VGA flight simulator), MicroProse's World Circuit (a hell-on-wheels racecar simulator), Tsunami's Wacky Funsters! (5 1/2 arcade-game spoofs that include a Bambi-hunts-the-hunters game), and Maxis's SimFarm (SimCity goes country).
It looks like 1993 will be a great year for consumer electronics, with lots of innovative hardware and software.