It Can Rom, But It Can't Hide

CLICK. YOU'RE INSIDE A COZY BOOKLINED STUDY. Click. A cartoon fish pops out of a painting of a seashell. Click. A slide show of vintage Vogue magazine covers flashes by. That's just one of 12 rooms in "Alice: An Interactive Museum," where the click of a computer's mouse unleashes a stream of eccentric inventions. Too surreal? Come back to earth with "Capitol Hill" from Software Toolworks, which turns users into freshman legislators. You learn how Washington works--and doesn't work--as you vote on bills, listen to debates and meet powerful wheelers and dealers. Losing faith in the future? Try "Isaac Asimov's The Ultimate Robot," from Microsoft. It tells you everything you ever wanted to know about droids and their kinetic kin; when you've absorbed all the lessons, you can use the on-screen tool kit to build your own mechanical helper.

Those are just a few of the programs available on CD-ROMs, one of the computer industry's hottest new products. "There's no question that 1993 was the year of the CD-ROM explosion," says Ken Wasch, executive director of the Software Publishers Association, a trade group. This year, there have been dozens of new titles every month (including some from traditional print publishers, like NEWSWEEK). Major movie studios are also developing CD-ROM titles. Consumers spent $56 million on CD-ROMs in the first six months of this year alone, Wasch says, and some analysts predict $10 billion in sales by the end of the decade.

If that happens--computer products have been badly hyped before--it will be a true Cinderella story. Not too long ago, CDROM software was CD what? to everyone but research librarians and avid readers of computer magazines. CD-ROM discs look just like CD audio disks; ROM stands for "read only memory," which means you can't change it, you can just look at it. CD-ROMs were valued mostly for their huge data-storage capacity--about 600 times larger than the average floppy disk. Great for boring but essential stuff, like street directories, but not very inspiring. Another turn-off. CD-ROMs require extra equipment, a special drive that attaches to a desktop computer or a television set.

In the last couple of years, however, a new generation of artists, writers, composers and designers have used that vast memory to tell stories combining sound, video, text and still photographs. The format's potential appeals to industry giants like Microsoft and smaller companies like Cyan, of Spokane, Wash., which produces programs for children. They're attracted by economics (cheaper computers and CD-ROM drives, more PC owners) and improved programming that makes it easier to combine video and audio on disc. "There's freedom now to do just about anything," says Chris Brandkamp, Cyan's operations manager.

Retailers are also jumping on board. Until this year, most CD-ROMs were sold through mail-order catalogs; there just wasn't enough volume to justify shelf space in software stores. But as the number of titles grew, many stores expanded their CD-ROM sections. At the same time, some software publishers are looking for other outlets. Todd Wade, codirector of marketing for Voyager, a company that is best known for selling electronic books on floppy disks, thinks bookstores are an ideal place to sell CD-ROMs with serious content (one of Voyager's titles is an annotated "Macbeth" with karaoke that allows you to pick a role and play along).

If all this sounds appealing, how does the average consumer avoid double toil and trouble getting started? By treading very cautiously. There are at least a half dozen CD-ROM formats. Some work on computers and others just on TVs or special monitors--and they're not compatible with each other. In other words, right now, you can't play CD-ROMs meant for Sega on a Macintosh.

The best way to choose the right format is to check out available titles. If you're interested in games, you might want to consider Sega or 3DO (Nintendo plans to enter the market soon). The vast majority of nongame titles are available for Macintosh, Windows or DOS (there are also good games available for these formats as well). If you're in the market for a new computer, buy a multimedia machine. Several companies have models that sell for under $2,000. You can also upgrade your cur-rent computer. Macs are the easiest to adapt. If your machine is of relatively recent vintage, it has sound and enough memory (at least 4MB of RAM; more is better). You just need to buy a CD-ROM drive (about 8300). For DOS or Windows, you'll need the drive, a sound card, an SVGA monitor and a mouse.

Many retail outlets and manufacturers are offering multimedia bundles--a drive, cables and other equipment, and a few CDs. These can be good deals, but if you don't want the particular CDs offered, you might be better off buying a la carte.

Picking out equipment is easy compared with sorting through the piles of CDs on the market now. CDs aren't cheap; even children's programs can sell for $60, and some of the more sophisticated games or reference works are $100 or more. Mistakes can be costly. Here's a sampling:

Broderbund was one of the first companies to experiment with CD-ROMs. Its "Living Books" series, introduced last year, consists of animated versions of popular children's stories. Kids under 10 use a mouse to explore illustrations that are full of surprises (birds whistle, window shades roll up and down, mysterious faces appear in a window). Two standouts are "Arthur's Teacher Trouble" by Marc Brown and "The New Kid on the Block," poems by Jack Prelutsky.

"Iron Helix" from Spectrum HoloByte and "Lunicus" from Cyberflix are both fast-paced, sci-fi adventures with sophisticated graphics that are several cuts above the typical futuristic video game (for teens and adults). In "Iron Helix," the player navigates a robot probe through a spaceship that would be at home in a "Star Wars" movie. "Lunicus" uses characters it calls cyberpuppets to move around an Earth dominated by the evil Hive Queen in the year 2023. For a more mellow experience, try "Myst," created by Cyan. It takes place on an eerily beautiful island and there's no violence--an amazing feat in the gory video world.

The graphic capability of the CD-ROM format makes it a natural for National Geographic. The magazine's "Wonders of Learning Library" of electronic books combines photographs, text and sound to talk about plants, animals, the Earth and the human body. For a more exotic view of the world, there's "Small Blue Planet" from Now What Software with satellite pictures of the Earth. Heading in the other direction, "Undersea Adventure" from Knowledge Adventure dives into the marine world.

Whodunits are well suited to CDROMs because players can gather clues as they navigate through the programs. Most in this genre feature short videos of victims, criminals and innocent bystanders. The "Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective" series from ICOM Simulations includes three stories on each disk. In "Who Killed Sam Rupert" from Creative Multimedia Corp., the victim, owner of a Yupscale California restaurant, is found dead in the wine cellar. Viacom's "Dracula Unleashed" is billed as an "interactive horror movie"; the goal is to stop the Prince of Darkness before he bites again.

They've taken over TV and movies, so why not CD-ROMs? The best of a rather large crop of dino disks are Microsoft's "Dinosaurs" and "3-D Dinosaur Adventure" from Knowledge Adventure (for kids and adults). Microsoft lets users explore prehistory through lush graphics and clear text. In the 3-D version, you don bright green 3-D glasses to move through four rooms of the 3-D Dinosaur Museum.

These are just the first crop of CD-ROMs, and they may well be eclipsed by disks that take advantage of faster drives. Voyager's most successful title, an annotated version of the Beatles' movie, 'A Hard Day's Night," with commentary by movie critics, has sold "in the low to mid five-figures," says Wade. Next ear he prediets that some titles will sell 100,000 copies. Not exactly "Jurassic Park" numbers--but not a bad start.