I HOLD IN MY HANDS an iridescent artifact from a civilization of the future. The civilization, or so the global entertainment, electronics and computer industries would have us believe, is our planet's, just 11 months from now. The artifact, which I acquired at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, looks for all the world like a compact disk. But no CD or CD-ROM player can decipher the information on it.
The artifact is a new medium, a direct descendant of the compact disk that is read by similar laser technologies. It goes by the name of DVD, which stood for "digital video disk" until the medium's diverse possibilities became obvious.
Although the V briefly came to stand for "versatile," the industry's official line now is that the initials stand for nothing particular at all.
Just as the compact disk changed the face of the music business, DVD is meant to transform the video industry. Even in its simplest form, a single disk can hold a 135-minute feature film complete with three separate language tracks of surround-sound audio and four sets of subtitles.
Seeing is believing
Picture quality can visibly surpass what videocassettes deliver. DVD players will also read current audio compact disks.
Players that connect to TV sets and hundreds of movies on disk are expected to appear in time for Christmas. Eventually, portable players should be no bigger than paperback books.
What has this consumer device to do with the personal computer? Why did an impatient computer industry step in to compel a reconciliation between two warring factions wedded to incompatible digital disk formats that threatened a replay of the Beta-VHS wars? Because the information on the DVD, as on the CD, is stored as digital 1s and 0s.
But unlike the CD-ROM, which tries to extract a silk purse's worth of video, sound, animation and data from a medium originally intended to fill our ears with music, the DVD was designed from the outset to deliver the full panoply of material encompassed in the term "multimedia."
You can think of DVD simply as a bigger, faster CD-ROM that can deliver full-screen video that looks like TV, not expanses of fuzzy blocks.
In its basic form a DVD-ROM, as the first computer incarnation will be known, can hold 4.7 gigabytes of information on a single side, about seven times the capacity of current CD-ROMs. Double-layered DVDs will hold 8.5 billion bytes, and double-sided disks will double those numbers.
Data can flow steadily from the disks at a rate of 1.35 megabytes per second, more than twice as fast as this year's so-called 4X CD-ROM players. Recordable, and later re-recordable, DVD disks are expected to appear a year or two later.
DVD-ROM drives for computers will probably not be able to decode standard DVD movies without help from a technique called MPEG-2 decoding, which requires that special circuitry be built into video cards and computers.
Just as CD-ROM add-on kits typically include sound cards, DVD-ROM drives may come bundled with MPEG-2 decoders, and will be able to play current disks that use the much less impressive MPEG-1 encoding, making today's higher speed CD-ROM drives and MPEG-1 hardware something of a dead end.
"We think it's going to turn out that MPEG-1 is really a transition phase and that MPEG-2 is what people are really looking for," said Ken Wirt, vice president of marketing for Diamond Multimedia Systems Inc.
The personal computer business expects big things from DVD. Brian Dalgetty, program director of product marketing for the IBM Aptiva line, expects the product "to have a significant impact on the industry," adding, "It's going to miss having a splash in 1996, but for 1997 I think it's almost as critical as when CD-ROMs were introduced."
Frank LoVerme, vice president for advanced media sales at WEA Media Services, predicted, "By the end of next year, every computer is going to have a DVD drive."
Similar prophecies were made back in 1986 for the CD-ROM, which in reality took the better part of a decade to become successful.
Richard Harada, a marketing manager at the Panasonic Communications and Systems Co. who lived through that history, suggested DVD would reach computers far faster.
Prices are likely to drop quickly, Mr. Harada said, because of economies of scale brought about by greater similarities in the consumer and computer products, a far larger installed base of computers and more manufacturers producing equipment.
And in the era of CD-ROM, consumers are no longer totally ignorant about the very concept of multimedia and are beginning to understand the limitations that DVD is likely to transcend.
Software developers are impressed but wary. "It's on our radar screen and we're testing it right now," said a spokesman for IBM's Multimedia Studio, which produces consumer-oriented software.
"When there's a critical mass of players, we'll be there."
"It's very exciting stuff," said Emiel Petrone, senior vice president of Philips Media. "To have that kind of capacity to work with is a developer's dream."
Catches remain. Standards for the way data is laid out on a disk are still unfinished.
Software giving access to disks and drives is not yet available, nor are tools that help software developers create their wares, nor are many of the prototype drives themselves.
Conflicting audio specifications for movies released in various parts of the world may prevent the DVD disk from becoming a single global standard like the CD.
Although MPEG-2 decoding is likely to improve over time, so that a 1997 disk may look better on a 2001 machine, some experts fear that basic video quality may sometimes be compromised to cram longer movies or more information onto each disk. And creativity for producing better titles is always in short supply.
"I do not see any roadblocks in the success of DVD-ROM," said Carl Stork, director of Windows hardware programs at the Microsoft Corp. "I think it's a no-brainer." But he also included the caveat so necessary in the overoptimistic world of computers: "It's just a question of when."
Stephen Manes is a columnist for the New York Times.