For all the hullabaloo about faster computers, smarter software and wireless widgets, the real excitement at last week's Comdex/Fall trade show occurred in an annex where the called multimedia computer companies were quarantined.
For those who wanted more than the basic multimedia setup,
companies on the hardware side were touting the benefits of subwoofer speakers to go with their stereo computer speakers, faster CD-ROM drives, chips and plug-in boards that produce higher-quality color images, big-screen color monitors, devices with which to connect camcorders and VCRs to computers and, of course, lots of computer memory.
But the real action was on the software side, where hundreds of new CD-ROM products were on display.
The new titles go far beyond the simple reference books and educational programs that characterized early multimedia offerings. This year's new programs included an interactive children's game created with the financial backing of Michael Milken, and X-rated "adult" CD-ROM disks that drew the show's biggest crowds.
PC Compo Net of La Habra, Calif., was among a half-dozen companies selling CD-ROM titles that depict graphic sex with video, sound and still images. The displays caused traffic jams in the aisles as the predominantly male computer crowd stopped to gawk.
Some Comdex exhibitors complained about their X-rated neighbors on moral grounds; others said they were pleased by the crowds. One Japanese computer dealer said it appears that pornography may be the long-awaited "killer" application that will spur the sale of CD-ROM drives.
"People who develop CD-ROM software should be overjoyed that we're here, because we're helping sell CD-ROM drives," said Lawrence Miller, one of three partners in New Machine Publishing of Santa Monica, Calif., which makes games with explicit sexual content.
To give some idea of how popular the triple-X disks are, Mr. Miller said he started his privately held company in June and sales have doubled every month, with gross revenue to date approaching $1 million. Those sales have come despite the refusal of many magazines to carry advertising for such products.
Meanwhile, the wildest and most extravagant party at Comdex, was staged by a start-up multimedia company called 7th Level Inc., which has offices in Los Angeles and in Richardson, Texas.
The principals of 7th Level are George Grayson, who was ousted a year ago as president of the Texas-based software company Micrografx; Scott Page, a musician whose resume includes such rock groups as Pink Floyd, Toto and Supertramp, and Bob Ezrin, a Los Angeles entertainment producer.
In a warehouse filled with movie props and memorabilia, hundreds of computer industry figures found themselves converging with the likes of Milken and Merv Adelson, a Time Warner board member and founder of Lorimar Productions; the actresses Shelley Duval and Michelle Pfeiffer; and the Las Vegas tycoon Steve Wynn.
The focal point of this convergence and the reason for the party was a still unfinished CD-ROM disk called Tune Land, an "interactive cartoon" for children that features the voice of the comedian Howie Mandel. It appears similar to such CD-ROM products as Broderbund's The Playhouse in that the child points at an object on screen, clicks on it and triggers an action, such as a dancing teapot or a singing duck.
As with The Playhouse and similar programs, there are dozens of objects for a child to test and there are many scenes to explore.
Tune Land is different, though, in that it uses Mr. Grayson's expertise in computer graphics to create vibrant colors and screen actions that rival feature-film animation, Mr. Page's musical connections for songs like "Three Blind Mice" and "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" (one can barely imagine rock 'n' roll musicians performing those tunes), and the financial backing and connections of Mssrs. Milken and Adelson.
Mr. Page said Tune Land will cost about $50, and 7th Level plans to produce about four titles by the end of 1994.
Even so, Mr. Grayson hinted of future alliances with such media powerhouses as Disney and Time Warner, the licensing of 7th Level technologies to other companies, and of being in the unusual position of having too many offers of financial backing from Hollywood luminaries.
(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas, bureau:  328-8258.)