I don't know what the guy who programmed the LAVA! Music Video Player was smoking, but it's obvious he never exhaled.
In fact, the first time I saw this silly but delightful Windows program, I was transported back 30 years, when light shows and psychedelic images helped define the 1960s musical counterculture. The 20-somethings who demonstrated the program couldn't understand why I was chuckling.
"Hey," I told them, "if we'd had this stuff when I was in college, we never would have exhaled, either."
The LAVA! player, which is free for downloading from Creative Technology (www.lavamusic.com) plays MP3 music files on a Windows 95/98 PC and pops up a "music video" whose images flash, move and change shape in time with the song.
It's hard to describe what you see on the screen, but if you can imagine a gyrating, multicolored, seven-armed cactus surfing through a three-dimensional vortex of rainbow Jell-O, you get the idea. And that's just one of eight trance-inducing image "templates" you can apply to any song on your play list.
Creative Technology, which has set the standard for PC sound cards for a decade, developed the LAVA! player as an accessory for its new Sound Blaster Live hardware. But last week it released a version that will work with virtually any PC sound setup.
The company has also introduced its first portable MP3 player, called the Nomad, and it's encouraging artists and MP3 addicts to produce LAVA! music videos and distribute them over the Internet with their songs.
If you haven't paid attention to the PC music scene lately, MP3 is a compression technology developed by the industry's Motion Picture Experts Group that allows you -- or anyone with a desktop computer and CD-ROM drive -- to record music from a compact disc and store it on your hard drive in a fraction of the space it would normally require. These files usually have the extension ".MP3," hence the name.
To hear them, you'll need an MP3 player, but they aren't hard to find. The latest version of Windows' media player handles MP3 files and other compressed audio formats, while more sophisticated players such as Winamp (www.winamp.com) and RealPlayer (www.realaudio.com) let you create play lists that turn your PC into an MP3 jukebox -- without quarters.
The format has become wildly popular with teen-agers, college students and music buffs of all ages who trade MP3s over the Internet (many of them illegally pirated). But MP3 has also been a hit with new performers who want to get their music directly to the public, as well as some established stars who chafe under the control of the traditional music studios. Legal MP3 music sites are some of the hottest attractions on the Web.
With the LAVA! player, Creative has added an entertaining new wrinkle that can turn any MP3 tune into a multimedia production. The only limitation is the player's appetite for computing horsepower. At the minimum, you'll need a 300 MHz Pentium II machine with 64 megabytes of memory, 20 megabytes of hard disk space and a video card with 3D capability. Unfortunately, there's no Macintosh version, but Creative hasn't ruled one out for the future.
The software includes a basic MP3 player that lets you create a play list from MP3s stored on your disk, along with a window that displays the music video. For each song, you can choose from eight different video "templates" with titles like Ancient Egypt, Dancing Circus and Trippy Trance (if you remember psychedelic mushrooms, you'll love this one).
When you've selected a template, you can customize it with colors and background, adjust the rate of play and complexity of the image, and add your own images to the mix.
For example, if you have a digital photo of friends or family, you can incorporate them. Just be aware that some strange things will happen to the photo when the music starts playing.
Creative wants you to save your customized LAVA! files and share them with others. They're stored separately from the MP3 music file and don't take up much space -- 100 to 200 kilobytes on average -- which makes them acceptable attachments with most e-mail systems.
Watching these videos is a real trip (now there's a term that dates me). Creative's audio player produces some of the best sound I've heard from MP3s, and the software does a great job of making the images twist, whirl, zoom and morph to the beat of the music. Naturally, the faster your computer and video card, the better the experience.
At the moment, the generic version of LAVA! will only play MP3 files, but if you have a Sound Blaster Live card, you can download a version that will support additional audio formats, including wave and MIDI files. Creative also promises to support Microsoft's new digital music format, one of several competitors to MP3.
You'll find dozens of new MP3 releases with LAVA! videos on the Creative Web site. As for me, I'm going to see if I can find one of those old Jimi Hendrix or Grateful Dead albums, turn it into MP3 and pop a LAVA! video on top.