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Why the Future Will Be Great, but Late

Here’s an update on those techno-products that promise to change home entertainment

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DVD (Digital Versatile Disc): Sort of a CD on steroids, this 5-inch disc is the leading contender as format of the future for movies, music, and games, with 10 models and 200 titles on the market. COOL Q: Looks and sounds great, holds a ton of material, and plays through either AV or PC systems. BUGS: Not all studios have released titles. PROSPECTS: Could face dire competition from noncompatible ”pay-per-view” discs, and if the market becomes confused, DVD could die.

DTV (Digital Television): Best known for its highest-quality version, HDTV, this technology should be a broadcasting breakthrough, but it’s mired in political and economic bickering. COOL Q: Potential is there for spectacular pictures and zillions of channels. BUGS: Likelihood is for mediocre pictures — some providers want to transmit at lower-than-HDTV quality — and zillions of channels. PROSPECTS: The first DTV sets should arrive by late ’98 for at least $5,000.

Internet TV: This ”convergence” medium promises integration between the Web and TV. Two formats are out already — Microsoft’s WebTV and Oracle’s Network Computer. COOL Q: A $300 box is cheaper than a PC and modem. BUGS: A lot of websites look awful on TV, and there aren’t enough local-access phone lines. PROSPECTS: By the time set-top boxes catch on, cable companies might make them obsolete by delivering the same services through your cable box.

VR (Virtual Reality): A computer-originated 3-D environment that simulates a real or fantasy world, VR is still in its infancy. Rudimentary examples can be seen at theme parks and arcades. COOL Q: The ultimate escapism — if you don’t like this world, choose another. BUGS: Requires massive computing power; it’s painfully slow on a typical PC. PROSPECTS: High growth potential — once the environments use real video instead of computer graphics.

Next-Generation Computer Chips: The processors of the future (meaning 5 minutes from now) are 64-bit monster chips, double the brains of today’s 32-bit processors. Intel, as always, dominates, but it will have real competition this time. COOL Q: You’re getting workstation power on a PC, meaning superfast graphics and gameplay. BUGS: As with any new technology, the first offerings are pricey. PROSPECTS: IBM’s recently unveiled copper chip revises Moore’s Law that processor power doubles and prices halve every 18 months. It’s now every 6 months (just what the PC industry wants).

PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants): These handheld PCs and digital organizers are de rigueur for the wired set. The split is between those who like a tiny keyboard and those who prefer a tiny plastic pen and electronic pad. COOL Q: A good PDA is as sexy as tech toys get. BUGS: Once you enter your life into a PDA, you can’t function without it. PROSPECTS: Expect a total overhaul — future models will have color screens, take digital pictures, and record audio.

Online Gaming:Real-time, multiplayer interactive games over the Web are one of the biggest new-media success stories. COOL Q: Where else can you meet anonymous people from all over the world and brutally kill them? BUGS: Games can be visually confusing. PROSPECTS: Next step, 3-D; eventually, VR.