MERGING THE POWER OF TV, COMPUTERS Company touts the possibilities of 'multimedia' PC but it's not cheap



David Harter walks into offices to make presentations carrying Bose speakers and something that looks suspiciously like a Compaq portable computer.

It is a computer. But when he switches it on, it's clear the machine has the characteristics of other electronic devices, too.

It is a television. On its flat, 9-inch screen, broadcast-quality images appear and dance at normal speeds.

It is a video player. Instead of a tape, the machine stores its videos on a hard-disk drive or a compact disc.

It is a stereo. The sound that blares out can compete with anyone's favorite boom box.

It is an overhead projector -- without the need for foils or pull-down screens.

For Mr. Harter, this is the first example of what a "multimedia" personal computer is about. He is the chief executive officer of Bermac Communications Inc., which has put the system together from commercially available products. He uses this almost one-of-a-kind apparatus to pitch clients on the benefits of making lively presentations that sales professionals can take directly into a customer's home.

From an electronics perspective, however, it is only the latest example of a continuing quest to merge the powers of the television and the computer.

In the 1980s, Sharp Corp. introduced a personal computer that used a television as its screen. But it was not a marriage. A user could either compute or watch television -- but not both at the same time. Video game systems have been similar, using an available television mainly as a display device.

But in the past year, a variety of approaches have emerged allowing a user to take advantage of computing and moving images on the same screen at the same time.

Add-in cards allow the simple pass-through of television images onto most any widely used personal computer. That allows the user, for instance, to continue to work on a spreadsheet while keeping Cable News Network visible in a corner of the screen.

The Compaq computer Mr. Harter carries is equipped with an ActionMedia board from Intel Corp. It allows the display of digitally stored video images. Mr. Harter can push and pull a window that shows the images in almost any size on the screen. On the rest of the screen, a spreadsheet of numbers might also show, for reference.

This begins to combine computing and television into a single process that can involve both a presenter and a spectator.

For instance, an insurance agent can ask a client personal information such as age, family members, household income, goals and such, entering the responses into the computer, Mr. Harter said.

Once entered, the data could be sorted and the pattern matched against a library of videos stored on disk. The video that most closely matches the personal situation of that client would be automatically played. At various points, the video could be started or stopped, just like a tape recorder, to replay key parts.

The idea is to bring emotion into the equation. "It's the idea that 'I face the same problem.' " It's one-on-one "narrow-casting," he said, borrowing a phrase from the cable television industry.

NCR Corp. uses the one-on-one approach to teach its sales force to sell computers. The technology, as applied by a San Anselmo, Calif., production company called Amazing Media, lets salespeople assume different roles before going out into the field.

Another use is interactive "newscasts" about a company, with the viewer choosing what video clips to see.

While companies such as Bermac and Amazing Media target use of such capabilities at industrial markets, the direction is clear. Within a few years, the sharp, flat 9-inch screen is likely to expand to more conventional television sizes, such as 12, 14 and maybe even 19 inches.

The storage capacity also will grow. Now a hard drive that can store 100 million numbers and letters can only store about 15 minutes of video. A compact disc can store perhaps 72 minutes. Not until some kind of disk that can store a feature-length film can be popped into an integrated TV-computer can such a system become a home appliance that replaces several appliances.

The convergence of computing and television also does not come cheap. Equipped with the right boards for passing through television signals and displaying digitally stored video images, the kind of system Mr. Harter totes around would cost about $12,000. For the average consumer, it's still a lot easier to buy a $200 VCR, a $300 TV and a $1,000 computer, separately.

"From the consumer standpoint, I don't know how they could justify that kind of involvement," said Phil Chadwick, Bermac's marketing vice president. By contrast, for a real estate agent who could boost sales 1 percent a year, the integration "might be a bargain," he said.

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