Fast Forward. (MPEG compression lets multimedia PCs handle more data) (Multimedia PC) (Column)
by David English
The latest and greatest change on the multimedia front in MPEG compression, which promises to dramatically increase the amount of data that multimedia PCs can handle. I briefly mentioned the new ReelMagic board last month in this column and in "COMPUTE's Getting Started with Entertainment Software". Since then I've learned more about it, and I now expect that this board, and others like it, will completely change our expectations of multimedia.
ReelMagic (Sigma Designs, 510-770-0100, $449) promises to let you play back full-screen, full-motion video from an ordinary CD-ROM drive. All you need is a 16-MHz 386SX computer, 2MB of RAM, a VGA card with a standard VESA feature connector, and any Level 1 MPC-compliant CD-ROM drive (it only has to be capable of a 150K-per-second transfer rate).
How can ReelMagic bring full-screen, full-motion video to such a lowly computer? The board uses its own processor for the MPEG decompression, so your computer's processor is called on only to move data from your CD-ROM drive to the ReelMagic card. The real magic is performed by ReelMagic's MPEG decompression chip, which can restore MPEG files that have been reduced by a ratio of as much as 200:1. It's the realtime decompression of MPEG files that allows the board to play back video files at 30 frames per second with 32,768 colors at resolutions as high as 1024 x 768.
MPEG combines the video and audio into the same signal, so MPEG CD-ROMs will also have CD-quality stereo sound with none of the synchronization problems that plague Video for Windows and QuickTime for Windows. ReelMagic uses your video card's feature connector to overlay its own video--that's why you can display 32,768 colors, even with an ordinary VGA card that normally displays only 16 colors at 640 x 480. In addition, the sound portion of the card is compatible with both the Windows MPC standard and "DOS games" (presumably, that means both Sound Blaster and Ad Lib compatibility).
So what's all this mean for you? With MPEG compression, a software developer can squeeze 74 minutes of full-screen video and CD-quality audio onto a single CD-ROM. That means games, educational programs, and video-based reference works can now be full-screen with 32,768 colors. The ReelMagic package includes one MPEG-format CD-ROM game, Activision's Return to Zork, and an interactive CD-ROM with demos of upcoming MPEG titles.
Some of the MPEG CD-ROMs that should be ready by late 1993 or early 1994 include Access's Under a Killing Moon, Interplay's Lord of the Rings, Readysoft's Dragon's Lair, Sierra's Outpost and Police Quest 4: Open Season, and Virgin Games' The XIth Hour: 7th Guest Part II. Aris plans to release all of its video-clip CD-ROMs in this new format, including Video Cube, World View, and MPC Wizard.
One of the most remarkable qualities of this new MPEG standard is its ability to operate across different platforms. Apparently, you'll be able to use your ReelMagic to play some MPEG titles produced for CD-I and 3DO machines. ReelMagic is also compatible with the new VideoCD format, a platform-independent standard for delivering movies and audio material to consumers on CD-ROM. Philips, JVC, Commodore, Goldstar, and Samsung have announced that they'll be manufacturing and sellin VideoCD players. These companies hope that VideoCD will eventually replace videotape as the medium of choice for distributing movies to homes.
Paramount Home Video has even begun converting its film library to MPEG format for distribution on VideoCDs.
So should you rush out to your favorite computer store and pay $449 for a ReelMagic board (or $499 for the model with a built-in SCSI interface)? This early on, you'd be betting that there would be plenty of MPEG software to follow--because without the software, you'd be stuck with what would essentially be an overpriced sound card. Fortunately, the hardware looks good, and software companies appear to be supporting it. If more companies announce support with computer programs and feature films, this could be the biggest thing to hit multimedia since the invention of the CD-ROM drive.