Of all the impressive technologies on display at the recent Comdex Fall computer trade show, the most exciting was also the hardest to define.
It is called multimedia, and it incorporates the best aspects of printed books, television, computers and the human imagination.
People have been talking about multimedia for years, but it has always seemed to be a solution in search of a problem.
The magic of multimedia became apparent for me during a demonstration of two software products developed by the International Business Machines Corp., called Columbus: Encounter, Discovery and Beyond, and Illuminated Books and Manuscripts (IBM, get it?).
The two programs were loaded into a prototype of a new IBM personal computer that was designed specifically for multimedia applications.
The computer, called the PS/2 Ultimedia Model 57 SLC, is scheduled for delivery in March at a suggested list price of $6,000.
Ultimedia is a cute name, and the "M" is colored in rainbow stripes, not unlike the logo of IBM's new multimedia partner, Apple Computer Inc.
The computer itself uses a custom version of the 386SX microprocessor developed by IBM itself, not the Intel Corp., and IBM asserts that its 20-megahertz chip is as much as 88 percent faster than Intel's 20-megahertz 386SX.
The extra speed, achieved through a technology called caching, is needed to handle the special demands of multimedia software.
The Ultimedia M57 SLC machine comes standard with a CD-ROM drive, an XGA graphics card that is capable of displaying photographic-quality images and video, special audio and music adapters and other features.
The version we saw had external speakers and was attached to a Pioneer laser disk player. Its operating system was a pre-release version of OS/2 with special multimedia extensions.
The real importance of multimedia is not in the hardware, however, but in the software, just as the significance of television is not in the picture tube but in the programming. Columbus and Illuminated Books are just two of hundreds of multimedia applications that are expected to be developed in the year ahead.
On one level, Columbus and Illuminated Books are educational programs that will be available next spring for an estimated cost of $2,500 each.
Not many individuals will be interested in them at that price, obviously, but some schools may find one or the other compelling as a classroom or library application. The steep price of the Ultimedia computer is also a major hurdle.
On a deeper level, Columbus, for example, consists of three video disks, two CD-ROM disks and conventional printed manuals and guides.
It comprises 2,600 text articles, seven hours of audio, five hours of video, 1,800 graphics and photos, 200 maps, and -- most important -- 431,000 "links," which tie all the information together in a cohesive way.
Most people are familiar with seeing text on a computer screen. Many are used to seeing color charts and illustrations. But it is startling to see television-quality video and hear compact-disk quality stereo sound issuing from a PC, and more astonishing yet to be able to control these new tools with a click of the mouse.
Yet it is exactly that easy to navigate and explore the vast, unknown seas of information of Columbus (sorry, but the metaphor is unavoidable).
Along the way, a student might wind up exploring African music and its influence on American jazz, Native Americans and their religions, botany, mathematics, art, the Renaissance, Galileo, Shakespeare, Martin Luther, and, yes, Columbus himself.
As a child I used to roam at random through the encyclopedia, becoming fascinated by new topics that turned up while I was looking for something else entirely.
The encyclopedia was text-based, with occasional pictures or diagrams, some in color. With multimedia, the encyclopedia becomes infinitely richer, allowing the "reader" to see the ships rise and fall with the ocean swells, to hear the masts creaking and to eavesdrop as Columbus recites from his diary.
Multimedia is, in fact, a new world for computing.
It is much too expensive today for household use, and there is no way a child can read a multimedia computer under the covers at night with a flashlight. But products like Columbus and multimedia PCs show what is possible, and that is exciting.