Will CD-I catch on -- Philips Electronics' new technology allows users to play interactive audio and video on their TVs

Philips Electronics, N.V., which first marketed the audiocassette, the audio compact disc, and the video laserdisc, has just launched what it claims will be the next revolution in home entertainment: Compact Disc Interactive, or CD- I. Disguised as a compact disc player, the CD-I machine plays interactive audio and video CDs, as well as standard audio CDs. Hook it up to your TV, drop in a CD-I disc (only 32 are available so far), and, armed with a remote control, you can take piano lessons, sing a duet with James Brown, play an African thumb piano while strolling through the Smithsonian, listen to Tchaikovsky’s ”Marche Slave” while reading his biography on-screen, play golf (an announcer comments on your hooks and slices), or let your kids create their own cartoons. There’s really only one troubling question about the startling invention: Does anybody want it?

Philips’ device was heralded last week by full-page ads in major newspapers and unveiled at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York, where reporters, camera crews, and industry guests crowded into the perilously packed balcony to hear Philips reps liken the potential of CD-I to that of the Gutenberg press and movable type. Indeed, CD-I, which packs onto one compact disc as much information as an encyclopedia contains, does promise a stupendous change in teaching and entertainment, and so far its games and tutorials have gotten positive reviews.

Observers say, however, that to sell the players Philips needs to put more than 32 CD-I discs on the market quickly. ”The best piece of hardware in the world won’t sell unless there’s a lot of software to run on it,” says Dennis Exton, vice president of technology research for Merrill Lynch Europe. ”It’s very important, by the end of year one, that there [be] hundreds and hundreds of applications.” Philips plans to have 150 titles by the end of next year. Price and speed are other possible hurdles. Although it is expected to cost less, the player’s list price is $1,000 — a lot for an unproven product — although, as with most new home electronic products, the price will probably drop. And compared with the hyperspeed and hair-trigger response of home video games, the lazier pace of CD-I games will take getting used to.

A streamlined, user-friendly version of CD-ROM (which requires a computer hookup), will Philips’ CD-I find a welcome in U.S. homes? ”I don’t think there is any evidence at all of a consumer demand for this,” says David Lachenbruch, editorial director of the industry newsletter TV Digest. ”This is a classic example of trying to sell something that nobody’s familiar with.” Still, Lachenbruch knows that predictions are perilous. In 1980, at a preview for the Sony Walkman, he recalls being mystified because the tape player couldn’t record and had no loudspeaker. ”I said, ‘Are you crazy? Do you think people are going to pay $200 for this thing? You’re out of your mind!”’