A CD-ROM Diatribe…

(This column first appeared in the June 7, 1994 issue of PC Graphics Report)

I really admire the creativity of the various people and companies behind CD-ROM software (or discware?) these days. To many of us in this industry, there are obvious uses for CD-ROM’s sizeable storage capacity. These include mundane things like raw data, such as product documentation and reference material like Ziff-Davis’ Computer Library. This data reference mechanism is being extended to cover phone directories, mailing lists, and even encrypted software distribution. However, while useful, these uses are basically boring.

Who Could Ever Need That Much Data?
Some companies, like Microsoft, bring this to extremes. One recent delivery we received as part of their Level II Microsoft Developer’s Network kit was a 10-pack of CD-ROMs! Actually we received only 8, with 2 more promised RSN (Real Soon Now). If you think about it, 8 CD-ROMs, at a maximum capacity, without compression, can contain around 5 gigabytes of raw data. Now, I was both relieved and irritated to discover that the CD-ROMs from Microsoft weren’t quite full – in fact, many of them only had 100 MB or so of content. My relief stems from the fact that I really am not interested in sifting through 5 gigabytes of data. I just don’t have the years that would take. I am irritated by the fact that Microsoft could have probably condensed everything they sent onto 2 CD-ROMs, thereby making the contents much easier to manage. After all, not everyone has a CD-ROM jukebox. (I saw a CD-ROM tower at Spring COMDEX this week that held 14 CD-ROM drives, all for a mere $21,000 or so – not something within most normal budgets.)

Back to the Microsoft CD collection, I should mention that most of the material on those CD-ROMs was executable code (including every version of Windows imaginable – Japanese, American, you name it) and lots of documentation. All quite useful, at one time or another, but also not extremely exciting. It certainly does save money as a distribution medium – imagine stuffing a gigabyte or two on floppies, and even worse, having to install off them. Ugh.

Graphically Speaking
Where CD-ROMs tend to really differentiate themselves from other portable media is content. While programs and documentation certainly can take up quite a bit of storage space, they don’t come close to the requirements of still and moving graphics images (and accompanying sound). Hence the recent explosion of intensely graphical games (The 7th Guest and Return to Zork among them) and resultant technologies like digital video. This all, in turn, has spawned some very novel (and droll) uses of CD-ROM in the market.

The obvious graphical CD-ROM titles are just a natural extension of the documentation storage discussed earlier, except that graphics have been added in some shape or form, be they artist renditions of what a given dinosaur is believed to have looked like, or a film clip documenting JFK’s assassination. Several types of CD-ROM encyclopedias and historical digital documentaries have adopted this approach. One of the latest and neatest implementations of an educational historical documentation comes in the form of Knowledge Adventure’s The Discoverers, which makes the whole process of finding out about various explorers and inventors throughout the ages extremely interactive and entertaining. And the soundtrack is quite breathtaking.

Storing digitized video sequences on CD-ROM can be done creatively (as in the case of The Discoverers), or mundanely, such as capturing a whole movie onto CD-ROM and calling it interactive because you can stop, play, fast forward and rewind the jerky and blotchy psuedo-movie (I’ve actually had someone try to sell me on this “concept” as the ultimate in interactivity, even though it’s what my VCR already does).

Is There Romance On That CD-ROM?
I recently saw an extremely creative use of incorporating both stills and moving images into a CD-ROM product, namely Romulus Productions’ CD-Romance (see a recent issue of PCGR). The name doesn’t really provide a specific impression of what the product is – it could be a romance novel, the latest title in the emerging arena of “adult” CD-ROM titles, or even a computerized guide on how to get more romance into your life. The latter hits closest to the mark – CD-Romance is the personal classifieds on CD-ROM (i.e. “SWF seeks one-legged albino male who enjoys sky diving, mud wrestling, and fine wines…”).

You will shortly be able to buy the latest CD-Romance at your local software/hardware/book store for about $50 retail, pop it into your CD-ROM drive, fill out an on-screen questionnaire helping define your interests, likes, dislikes, sex, etc., and the software then pops-up a list of possible matches from its database of 300 people. The list of matches shows up in the form of still images (generally, a scanned in photo of the person).

You click on the photo, and poof!, you get a little motion video playback, along with recorded sound, where you get to see the person do their bit about themselves. You can also pull up a written list of their various likes, dislikes, and other characterizations. If you find some people you want to get to know better, you just use CD-Romance to dial your modem and send a message back to Romulus with the first names (all you’re given) and ID numbers of the people you’re interested in, and they’ll forward all your info to the people you indicated interest in. Then, if they are interested in pursuing things further, you’ll know. If you don’t have a modem, a letter sent via US Mail will do the trick.

New CD-Romance CD-ROMs will come out quarterly, and getting yourself listed is currently free. Romulus was recording (via video camera) applicants at COMDEX/Spring ’94 to be on the CD-ROM. Surprisingly, based on the ratio of women to men at COMDEX, Romulus was seeing a 2:1 recording ratio of women to men. While future plans including charging for the recording and registration of people for inclusion on the CD-ROM, revenue is currently supposed to be generated solely by commercial sales of the CD-ROMs, and a subscription service is also available at about $30 an issue. The publisher of CD-Romance hopes to expand the business to take demographics and geography into account, so that in a few years time it might be possible to get a CD-ROM of “single, Jewish, straight men in the Chicago area”, for example (their words, not mine). In any event, this represents the most novel use of CD-ROM I’ve seen lately, but I’m sure there’s something new lurking just out of sight. Any of you interested in getting participating in CD-Romance, or just wanting more information can contact Romulus in Carmel, Indiana at 317-843-5535.

An interesting footnote is that a couple ex-Truevision folk are key consultants to Romulus in this project.

My List of CD ROM Woes
CD-ROMs are becoming ever more pervasive in the PC market, as well as in the gaming market (3DO, Sega, and Atari), due to their excellent capacity and low cost. But, while Iapplaud unique applications of CD-ROM technology, I also see a significant set of hurdles that need to be overcome in order for CD-ROM technology to become a standard part of every PC user’s desk top.

The most noticeable problem is the lack of performance. Even today’s common double-speed CD-ROM drives are really just too slow. According to an IBM study conducted a couple decades ago, a user’s attention and focus wanders any time the user has to wait more than a half second for system response. So, if response time is dependent on retrieving information off the CD-ROM (which it is with most of today’s CD-ROM titles), the user’s concentration is basically shot. This was a problem I saw with Panasonic’s 3DO machine.

NEC’s new quad speed CD-ROM drives should help diminish the performance bottleneck, but even so, CD-ROM access and transfer rates need to get around to that of modern hard drives in order to be truly useful and seamless. This sort of throughput is necessary in order to make high quality, high resolution digital video playback viable. And no, I don’t see it being viable today. I offer my apologies to all of you out there marketing “real-time” digital decompression technologies, but I’ve yet to see an affordable playback solution that doesn’t make me cringe as a result of chunkiness, blockiness, poor color, or missed frames.

Significantly faster CD-ROMs could make this happen and allow digital implementations to approach analog reality.

Another woe of CD-ROMs is that while everyone seems to be hopping on the CD-ROM bandwagon and producing gobs of CD-ROM titles, no one seems to be able or willing to provide an inexpensive CD-ROM jukebox mechanism. Heck, I can go to the local electronic gadget store and get audio CD players capable of storing 5, 6, 10, 50, and even 100 CDs for near immediate access at bargain prices, but I still stuck with a paltry single-CD CD-ROM drive for regular use. With companies like Microsoft sending me 8 or 10 CD-ROMs, or Corel packaging several clip art CD-ROMs in a bundle, a multi-CD-ROM drive is natural evolution.

Finally, another thing that annoys me about CD-ROM technology is the driver support and lack of real interface standards. I shouldn’t have to load a large, memory gobbling set of drivers to get a CD-ROM to work, nor should I be forced to buy, download, or hunt for a driver to properly connect a CD-ROM drive to my system. CD-ROM support should be a base, non-memory loading part of the PC’s operating system, and CD-ROM hardware connections should not be a weird melange of SCSI, SCSI-2, IDE, parallel port or proprietary interfaces. At this point, however, all this is probably just a pipe dream (and a good excuse to buy a Macintosh).

Now that I’ve railed on about the detriments of current CD-ROM technology, I’d like to point out an overlooked benefit, namely the inherent nature of CD-ROM media (the discs themselves) of not being reusable. This may not seem like a benefit at first glance, but free CD-ROM titles (such as the Ziff-Davis Benchmark Operation (ZDBOp) WinStone/WinMark CD-ROMs) are much more likely to only be requested by people who really want to use them because they are on CD-ROM. A surprising number of consumers take advantage of offers for free demo disks just to get a free diskette for their own use, and not because they want to try the demo software on the diskette. CD-ROM distribution of demo and free software cuts down on this misdirection and abuse of media and lets companies more cost-effectively target people who actually are interested in the product being offered.

Based on all this, I certainly wouldn’t bet the farm on the long term viability of current CD-ROM technology, but am in great admiration of people who are able to adapt existing CD-ROM technology to novel uses. I would, however, be willing to bet that the first few companies to produce and sell low-cost, affordable, high-speed multi-CD-ROM systems will be very successful.