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Practicality? Just Give Me My Virtual Ringo

August 21, 1994|Chris Willman | Chris Willman is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

A colleague seemed surprised and puzzled over my recent choice to buy a CD-ROM player, yet curious--or materialistic--enough to keep pressing me for pertinent details about just what the damn things do and how much they cost.

The bottom-line question was inevitable: Were I sucker enough to shell for one of these , wouldn't it go the way of all flesh and all hardware formats right about the time I figured out which side of the disc goes up? hypothesized my interrogator, the hollow look of a former Beta man in his eyes.

Pressed for a defense, I spewed forth some of the usual hopeful, high-sell applications of CD-ROM as entertainment and/or information for the home, business, university and playroom. But then I decided upon just one word (much like the gent who advises Dustin Hoffman about plastics in "The Graduate") to assure him that there is a future for the format:


It's not that I mistook my colleague for Uncle Ernie. It's just that, if some of the more pragmatic computer magazines are to be believed, CD-ROM is in much the same place now as the VCR was just as that American staple started to boom in the early 1980s: an invention touted as fun for the whole family that ironically is being fueled largely by the sudden, easy availability of soft-core smut. And with this upstart hardware, high-tech dirty pictures become a staple of the home and office: While his co-workers go out for lunch, Dad can use the same PC that gets steamed up rolling over stocks during business hours to interactively order the Pet of the Month to roll over.

While other new formats may have the support of Sega, you see, CD-ROM has the support of Seka.

Seriously (and no one should doubt that the economic viability afforded a porn-friendly format is serious business), CD-ROM will probably succeed most of all because it works in conjunction with personal computers, thus further diluting the diminishing line between business and pleasure. There's guilt involved in getting a Gameboy, or probably should be--but a legitimate computer accessory, Lord knows, you're going to use for important stuff .

Programs currently available already run a gamut from the mundane to near-sublime. Would you like to walk through the National Gallery of London on your home computer? Have the phone company's white pages or yellow pages for the entire country encoded on a single slender compact disc? Browse an encyclopedia that comes with handy film clips and sound bytes? Remix a David Bowie song to specification?

Explore lavishly animated alternate worlds at your own pace? Play chess with characters that duke out your moves on the board? Watch an entire movie in miniature, with production notes scrolling alongside? Flip through an audiovisual business magazine? Study a Bible that has James Earl Jones speaking up occasionally and disconcertingly through your PC as the voice of God? Interactive catalogue shopping, anyone?

No? You know you want it.

Not that the future-shock glut now playing at an electronics store near you didn't give me plenty of doubts of my own about the format's long-term survival prospects before I made the leap.

Though never a Beta man myself, I do feel a certain loneliness as still the only laser-disc enthusiast on my block, and I plan to be the last to jump on the Mini-Disc or Digital Compact Cassette bandwagons, should there ever be one of either. I still have a defiant "convince me" attitude toward the formats that more or less are competitors to CD-ROM for America's hearts and minds, like CD-i (CD-interactive) and CD+G (CD-plus-graphics).

Such a quandary. The indefatigable collector in me finally started lusting after a CD-ROM drive after reading favorable reviews of recent interactive music releases by the likes of Peter Gabriel and the former Prince, as well as press releases about upcoming retrospective discs on everyone from Monty Python to Clint Eastwood to Bob Dylan. But the technophobe in me convincingly counterargued that life is already entertaining and difficult enough without spending untold hours learning new commands just to finally hear "Gett Off" or "You feel lucky, punk?" booming through my tinny computer speaker.

What about price, you (and I) ask?

The good news is, you can get a good external "double-speed" CD-ROM drive add-on for your computer for $225-$400 these days--not bad as cutting-edge hardware goes. The bad news is, the software itself almost never comes cheap, usually costing anywhere from $35-$60 for discounted popular titles and more than $100 for some heavyweight discs. The good news is, thanks to the immense archival storage capacity of each disc, you sometimes get an awful lot of ROM for your charge slip. (Those national white pages come to mind.)

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