In Defense of the CD-i: The Blunders and Accomplishments of the World’s First True Multimedia Entertainment Center

Author: Mark Kretzschmar

Author’s Note: I’ve been a gamer all my life and I can recall every game system I’ve ever owned, from the Nintendo Entertainment System when I was three to the moment I set up my Steam account. However, some of my fondest gaming memories were reserved for a system that I didn’t even own. Come to find out, neither did most of the world! Before the advent of the Sony PlayStation but after the rise of the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, a console war that might as well have been an asterisk in video game history gripped the country (and by gripped I mean some suggested that video games were dying out). In the rush to become the next video game juggernaut, multiple companies decided to throw their hats into the ring. Panasonic with the assistance of Trip Hawkins marketed the 3DO. Atari (in its last gasp as a console manufacturer) released the Jaguar. And then there was Philips, the Dutch conglomerate who with the assistance of Sony, actually developed CD technology. Philips decided that they too would release a console, the CD-i. My uncle actually worked for Philips as a head salesman for the CD-i. While the console certainly wasn’t lacking in hardware capabilities, the public didn’t understand the product. Unfortunately, Philips had difficulty explaining this to consumers as well.

Why, yes. I do want a $699 console that looks like a VCR!” Later designs would mimic video game consoles.

Although the Philips CD-i was rebuked, I had access to it whenever I visited my grandparents in Denver due to my uncle’s connections. I played all of the games, even the universally panned Zelda games that Nintendo swept under the rug. I “played” the various edutainment titles that were entertaining in my case since they were free, but most certainly were not worth $50. I even watched some of the movies that were ported to the CD-i. Even though the library was small, I would eventually come to realize that these served as precursors to contemporary DVDs. Having been exposed to the CD-i (not to mention I have access to Philips’ corporate strategy for marketing the CD-i), I am in a unique position where I can praise it for what it did well.

 

Conversely, as a video game scholar of sorts, I am also capable of critiquing the system for its blunders. What follows is the first section as well as conclusion from a longer paper on just how much of an example of what not to do when marketing video games the CD-i serves in the annals of gaming history. That said, the CD-i is also an example of “what if” had Philips never made any mistakes when distributing and marketing their only home entertainment console. Should you desire to see the rest of the paper or any corresponding literature, let me know.

“In Defense of the CD-i: The Blunders and Accomplishments of the World’s First True Multimedia Entertainment Center”

It is often necessary to include gaming consoles into academic conversations because without these platforms, the content could not be analyzed in the first place. In fact, depending on the console war during the history of gaming, what platform a consumer chose to buy often dictated the type of gamer they were identifying themselves as (i.e. an Atari, Sega, Nintendo, or Sony individual to name a few). Much has been researched on the likes of the Sony PlayStation, Nintendo Wii, and Microsoft Xbox consoles. However, the actual push to have CD-based game consoles started in the early 1990s as a variety of competitors jockeyed for corporate supremacy of the video game industry, and exploited CD technology as what would eventually become the standard storage format for most consoles. Yet there is one system that is often omitted from video game history: the Philips CD-i. Widely panned by critics, Philips’ first and only platform is usually only mentioned in video game console discussions as an “overpriced education/entertainment deck” (Kent 483). While the CD-i certainly deserves much of the criticism it received in the early 90’s, what is often ignored is that the system was ahead of its time in terms of certain media advancements. After all, the CD-i was the first console that capitalized on the CD craze perhaps due in no small part to the fact that Philips was also the first corporation to develop compact disc technology. Additionally, the CD-i wasn’t supposed to be a video game console, but rather a multimedia home entertainment center that would effectively combine functions of game systems, VCRs, and even personal computers. In theory, the idea of the CD-i was a remarkable feat of technological innovation. As the platform proved, however, theory is often much different from practice. Despite this, the CD-i should have a place in the annals of media history because it was performing media tasks that systems nearly thirty years later are replicating in order to sell. This blog post is part of a much larger study that provides a history of the Philips CD-i and addresses how the complications of perceived entertainment value, pricing, mass marketing, and rushed technological objectives failed to captivate consumers. This entry will focus on the system’s entertainment value. Ultimately, without these marketing forces working in unison, even the most impressive and well-intentioned technological concept will be viewed as a colossal failure.

According to Jimmy Maher in the platform studies book The Future Was Here, we are currently living in a multimedia age:

The birth of the multimedia age begot nothing less than a revolutionary change in the way that all forms of media are stored and transmitted, marking the end of the analog era and the beginning of the digital, the end of an era of specialized devices capable of dealing with only one form of media and the beginning of our era of smart, programmable devices that can deal with many media. (5)

Even Mario found his way to the CD-i in what can be described as a very complicated past relationship between Nintendo and Philips.
Even Mario found his way to the CD-i in what can be described as a very complicated
past relationship between Nintendo and Philips.

It is important to note that these transitions take decades and usually result from considerable research. Additionally, formats have had to evolve so that a multimedia age could even be possible. That is why a discussion about the genesis of the compact disc is necessary for the purposes of this study as much of the technology that we rely on is based on the CD. While storage capacity was a specified goal of the compact disc, part of the reason why it was devised in the first place was because of the delicate nature of LP records: “Furthermore, the LP record was vulnerable and had to be handled with care. A scratch or accumulation of dust could spoil the enjoyment of the reproduced music” (Peek 10). Coincidentally, it was Philips that first began to look at technology that would replace the LP in the 1970s:

With these directions of the Board of Management in mind, the directors of the Audio industry group decided to increase their efforts. On a suggestion of J. van Tilburg, Audio’s general director, the name “[Audio Long Play]” was changed to “compact disc” or just CD. The word “compact” was in line with another Philips product, the compact cassette. (Peek 12)

After a few years of researching CD-based technology, Philips unveiled the prototype on March 8, 1979, and the Dutch conglomerate began to court potential corporate partners to distribute the product (Peek 15). After meetings with multiple electronic companies, Sony proved to be Philips’ best option. According to Peek, “[Sony] not only had an excellent position in products related to digital recording of audio on magnetic tape, but had also developed a prototype optical digital audio player and disc” (16). After yet more meetings between Philips and Sony, where details including the size of the compact disc, the allotted length of time, and audio frequency were finalized, CD players were released on the market in 1982 (Peek 16).

What this brief history of the compact disc proves is that Philips was one of the primary developers of the technology that would ultimately become the preferred method of storage for multimedia systems. Whether used for audio formats, CD-ROM titles, or movies, CD-based technology by Philips and Sony became the industry gold standard that made all uses of the compact disc possible. By the early 1990s, video game companies also began to utilize CD technology for their platforms. Sega released the Sega CD in 1992 (1991 in Japan), which was technically a peripheral that had to be attached to the Sega Genesis console. The Panasonic 3DO was released in October of 1993, and it promised to “make possible a whole new generation of interactive software, with application capabilities for the whole family” (CD-i 1993 RSS Meeting). While the console that ultimately made the biggest splash was the Sony PlayStation in 1995, it is fitting that in addition to creating CD technology, Philips also released the first multimedia system. Citing a “[g]olden opportunity to launch the Philips name in the U.S.” and a way to place “[l]everage on the Philips’ CD technology,” the CD-i was released in 1991 (Philips CD-Interactive Dealer Presentation Binder). The result was one of the first true events of utilizing one form of data storage to take on a plethora of media responsibilities.

Philips first unannounced the CD-i in 1986 and described it to audiences as the “Imagination Machine.” According to Maher, “The term multimedia came to be commonly associated with computing technology, however, only in 1989, when the arrival of reasonably good graphics cards, affordable sound cards, and CD read-only memory (CD-ROM) drives first began to transform the heretofore bland beige world of IBM and Apple” (5). This is interesting for two reasons. First, like the compact disc, Philips was once again associated with the rise in CD-ROM technology, selling CD-ROMs as early as 1990 (Philips CD-Interactive Dealer Presentation Binder). Second, it seems as if the home computer wasn’t as accepted by consumers at this time, partially due to the complexity of the units. Cawson, Haddon, and Miles claim, “In the early discussions it was recognised that the large majority of consumers found computers difficult to use, and part of this lay in the use of a keyboard for input” (188). It seems there was legitimate demand for the CD-i or similar technology because early incarnations of personal computers just seemed too intimidating for typical consumers who might not have had the patience or technical expertise necessary to engage with the devices. On the other hand, consumers were much more likely to buy products like VCRs and CD players. This idea of computer anxiety is reaffirmed by Dana Parker who writes that the CD-i “removes a potentially big market barrier posed by technophobes or other people who may have more sense or less time or resources than those who welcome–or at least grudgingly accept–the varied challenges of personal computers” (76). It seems evident that part of the marketing strategy of Philips was to promote the system as utilizing similar tasks as personal computers without requiring any prior computing knowledge. To elaborate this argument, Philip Lloyd of Philips Research Laboratories described the CD-i thusly in 1990:

CD-i is different to these in a number of ways. It is intended for use by a general audience, requires no computer knowledge, and employs concepts already familiar to the consumer. It is a self-contained product, compatible with existing domestic audio and television. A complete system standard has been agreed upon, and is being promoted by leading manufacturers. This means that, as with audio CDs, any disc will play on any player, anywhere in the world. The choice of CD-i as a vehicle for our research work was largely decided because of these characteristics. (Lloyd 104)

Philips hoped that the CD-i would appeal to audiences because it connected to a TV and employed a relatively user-friendly interface to interactive with the screen. Unlike other systems of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Philips tried to market the CD-i as a unit that could do so much more than just play video games, and Philips catered to the demands of consumers by testing out as many software opportunities as possible. Some of these examples included “information provision (compare different makes and models of car), and education (learn about the origins of civilization), to task support (get advice on planning your garden)” (Lloyd 105). Additionally, the CD-i could utilize software for job training. According to a 1995 article in the journal Management Services, “Many huge multi-nationals have adopted CD-i in their training departments. Chrysler, Johnson & Johnson, Proctor and Gamble, PepsiCo, Texaco and Kentucky Fried Chicken amongst others can now laugh and learn with John Cleese and friends” (“Make Them Laugh, Make Them Learn: Laughter Leads the CD-i Training Revolution” 3). The CD-i also found a niche audience in economic development. One such example was addressed by Howard Rowe of Illinois Power in the 1995 winter issue of the Economic Development Review. The CD-i was well-received and Rowe ultimately concluded, “Though it does an excellent job of storing and displaying information, CD-i will only be as useful and as effective as the economic development professional who presents it. CD-i is an attractive gadget, but it does not sell itself” (49). What all of these examples prove is that the CD-i was designed to assist people with specific responsibilities. Philip Lloyd validates this claim as he surmises in “Prototyping ‘Intelligent’ Applications for Interactive Multimedia Systems” that the “primary function of the sort of prototypes we are developing is to offer expert advice to help the user with a domestic task. There is therefore an educational content, but above all such titles should fulfill a definite need, and should be fun to use” (110). Unfortunately, Philips overestimated its educational products, and the result was a perceived lack of entertainment value by the consumers the company was trying to attract.

If it seems suspicious that Philips was promoting technology that only certain individuals might find attractive, that may be because the company was appealing to a different target audience when compared to those who were buying video game systems. What was rather unique about the marketing strategy of the CD-i was that while game consoles like the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo were targeted at children and teenagers, Philips attempted to market the CD-i to a hypothetical “college educated, higher income adult male” (CD-i 1993 RSS Meeting). Although this educated early adopter of technology was buying the console, “The age range of expected users was 8 to 80, which meant accommodating poor reading skills as well as older players with limited experience of interactive video games” (Cawson, Haddon, and Miles 198). As such, Philips was presenting a “mature” entertainment system to techno-savvy consumers, and was careful to not present the CD-i as a game console at the beginning of the product’s life cycle. Instead, the CD-i was astonishingly similar to what Myron W. Krueger suggests about media possibilities in his 1977 article titled “Responsive Environments.” Krueger states these responsive environments are created when “a computer perceives the actions of those who enter and responds intelligently through complex visual and auditory displays” (379). Krueger additionally claims, “While the environments described were presented with aesthetic intent, their implications go beyond art” (379). As both quotes demonstrate, Krueger’s responsive environments are virtual places where man interacts with media in new and innovative ways. Not only was the CD-i attempting to accomplish this very concept fourteen years after publication of Krueger’s article, but Philips even marketed the entertainment system as a product that could make these responsive environments possible:

Philips CD-Interactive gives the user the ability to select and control the information or entertainment on the screen; determine the sequence of a presentation; ask questions, and get immediate answers. With CD-i the user doesn’t just read about exotic places in a guide book, but actually explores the sights and sounds of far away places. The user doesn’t just read about taking better photographs, but can actually practice right on the TV screen. And children don’t turn into couch potatoes with Philips CD-Interactive—instead they create their own cartoons, color, work puzzles…interacting and learning while having fun with CD-i. (Philips CD-Interactive Dealer Presentation Binder)

If the CD-i was ever going to find an audience, Philips knew that the product had to appeal to technophiles who would certainly be willing to try out new technology if it was capable of simplifying and replacing prior forms of media. This is why the company explained the product as something that could help consumers learn about various forms of information with the ease of “hands-on” interactivity. What the above quote also infers, however, is that while the CD-i was pioneering “good” uses of technology, video game consoles were of little value and would only turn children into “couch potatoes.” Since video games were strongly stigmatized, Philips tried to portray the system as a knowledge machine, hence why the CD-i’s target audience consisted of an older clientele.

In order for “gaming” to be considered educational, edutainment titles were produced to appeal to young families. In “Responsive Environments,” Krueger proposes that shows like Sesame Street could change if given interactive attention in these settings: “Since the environments can define interesting relationships and change them in complex ways, it should be possible to create interactions which enrich the child’s conceptual experience” (388). Interestingly enough, Philips developed two such titles, A Visit to Sesame Street: Letters and A Visit to Sesame Street: Numbers, and both consisted of interactive features described by Krueger that would conceptualize learning for children through interactions with the show’s characters. Krueger states, “[Responsive environments] would provide the child with more powerful intellectual structures within which to organize the specific information he will acquire later” (388). While Krueger wasn’t referring to the CD-i specifically, it does seem that Philips was trying to introduce the system as a product that could utilize similar technology in order to come close to what he was suggesting. As a result, these edutainment titles became primary sellers of the CD-i. Additional titles at launch in 1991 included Cartoon Jukebox, Children’s Musical Theater, The Emperor’s New Clothes, Mother Goose Hidden Pictures, Paint School, Richard Scarry’s Busiest Neighborhood, and Sandy’s Circus Adventure.

This leads to the perceived entertainment value of the system, of which many consumers found the CD-i to be lacking. According to the Philips Corporation, “High quality, exciting home entertainment is a growing priority for consumers. Just look at the emergence of large screen TV, ‘home theater’ and ‘media rooms,’ [sic] consumers are looking for bigger and better all the time” (Philips CD-Interactive Dealer Presentation Binder). The CD-i didn’t leave much to be desired for in terms of content when it finally made it to stores in 1991. Aside from the plethora of edutainment titles for young children, only four “games” were initially released on the system. These were Palm Springs Open, Battleship, Connect 4, and Text Tiles (Philips CD-Interactive Dealer Presentation Binder). Of these, the title that made the biggest impact was Palm Springs Open, a golf game that demonstrated the abilities of which the CD-i was capable:

The game was an obvious winner, although I never got very good at putting. More importantly, however, it showed me how CD-i could store and retrieve pictures and audio descriptions of various property locations. The image quality was excellent, the program ran smoothly, and the hardware was very affordable. I was determined to find out if CD-i could be adapted to our needs in Economic Development. (Rowe 48)

Say what you will about the CD-i Zelda games, but their soundtracks were quite solid.

Despite an impressive golf game, however, consumers were less excited about other programs on the CD-i. Video games co-published with Nintendo, including Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, are so reviled that Nintendo doesn’t consider either as canonical. Audio titles such as Louis Armstrong, Classical Jukebox, Golden Oldies Jukebox, and Pavarotti could be played on a CD-i or CD player, the only major difference being the user would see facts and trivia on the former. Special interest titles like Rand McNally’s America: US Atlas ran for $39.98 and allowed users to “look up interesting facts and figures about our nation’s people, economy, and environment” (Philips CD-Interactive Dealer Presentation Binder). If an interactive atlas wasn’t enough to captivate an audience, the CD-i offered a title called Stamps: Windows of the World, a “wide-ranging guide to stamps and the stories they tell” (Philips CD-Interactive Dealer Presentation Binder). The major problem with CD-i’s interactive titles was that these proved how restrictive the CD could actually be. While the system promised to open new worlds via the aforementioned titles, the CD-i was very limited in what it could show users because the experiences would always be the same. Compared to a media like television or radio where shows and lineups are constantly transforming, the software of the CD-i remains static in a specific virtual space, and there is very little incentive to interact again after the first experience.

There were also issues with the CD-i’s edutainment titles, which were some of the system’s highest sellers. In an article from the British Journal of Educational Technology published in 1994, Lydia Plowman experimented to find out if the CD-i could be an asset in schools. As she notes, “Most available discs are of the resource-based type. These foster independent learning but children need to be taught information handling skills explicitly to get the most out of them” (Plowman 129). Despite the perceived ease of navigation of the CD-i, as evidenced by Plowman’s research, it didn’t turn out to be a great tool for the classroom due to lack of specified tasks or required metacognition that is integral to learning. The software was mostly to blame for this as she notes, “The poor quality of the materials provided for these systems is a constant refrain. Users are impressed with the technology, but disappointed by the software” (Plowman 127). In truth, the shortcomings of CD-i software weren’t the fault of Philips alone. As noted by Chamberlain and Hutchison, “More ‘really useful’ software needs to be made available if consumer resistance is to be overcome. Apple’s CEO John Sculley described this as a multimedia problem (not just CD-i’s). Multimedia still lacks what he describes as ‘killer software’” (19). Even if the CD-i wasn’t solely to blame for software issues of the multimedia age, the fact that the system operated under the moniker of the “Imagination Machine” is an indication of what Philips hoped would be unlocked with their multimedia console. Instead, consumers were introduced to bland software that left much to be desired.

Cawson, Haddon, and Miles note that “an important part — perhaps the important part — is the content of the software, i.e. what kinds of applications are likely to prove commercially successful” (199). The lesson to take away from Philips’ misstep in introducing CD-i software to the masses is to first make sure that there is an audience for the interactive nature of the system. The CD-i worked remarkably well for training videos as employees could “watch a complete programme as though it were on film or video, or they can access different chapters, each dealing with a particular training point and using a combination of full motion video, graphics, and text” (“Make Them Laugh, Make Them Learn: Laughter Leads the CD-i Training Revolution” 3). Philips also did manage to find early success with edutainment titles, even if they glutted the market. Dorothy G. Clark specifically analyzed Philips’ titles such as Aesop’s Fables and Bernstein Bears, and asserts, “The creation of these CD-I and CD-ROM adaptations tells a great deal about this new media and the pedagogical and aesthetic implications of moving a children’s story into the digital realm” (345).  Ultimately, the CD-i suffered from two entertainment drawbacks. First, while the console itself was new and the hardware was praised, the actual content of the software never changes. Philips was asking consumers to unleash the power of the CD-i in a repetitive process where the same experience is repeated ad nauseum. Arguably, CD-i didn’t succeed because it was perceived as “smart” instead of entertaining. Consumers seek entertainment, which will usually involve replay value. Most of what the CD-i was providing couldn’t be replayed. There is no incentive to repeat an educational title like The Renaissance of Florence at a price of $39.98 after just one session. Second, titles on the CD-i perhaps didn’t garner praise because the system was being asked to do things that could still be accomplished and better achieved through other sources of media, including VHS tapes and books. Plowman notes that “even enthusiastic users found limitations in the software and felt that it would not be long before the novelty wore off” (128). What may have started off as novel and entertaining quickly lost its spark. Despite being the new form of media, the CD-i was promoted during an era where prior forms of media were still better-suited for various tasks. Hypothetically speaking, a learner could use expensive CD-i software to explore the world, or s/he could have gone to the library during this time and saved considerable money. In short, the CD-i functioned best as a purveyor of information of sorts, but it was essentially useless after accomplishing its task. Howard Rowe sardonically states about his presentations using the CD-i, “We had a powerful presentation system that no one else could match. And if things got dull, we could always load up the golf game” (48). One can only imagine what Philips might have been able to accomplish if the company invested more effort into titles that consumers may have believed had more entertainment value.

[. . .]

In his analysis of the Nintendo Virtual Boy, Steven Boyer writes, “Rather than merely serving as a footnote in the history of gaming, the failure of the Virtual Boy provides a snapshot of the industrial difficulties encountered in addressing these vast consumer changes and, more significantly, serves as an optimal representation of the conflicts implicit in the larger cultural experience of technology” (32). It was the purpose of this study to explore what Philips did poorly when promoting the CD-i, but also to report some of the system’s minor successes that history has forgotten. Arguably considered one of the most exciting multimedia entertainment propositions, the CD-i was marred by virtually nonexistent advertisement, poor software, inflated pricing, and late promises. The CD-i isn’t a mere footnote in media history. Instead, it is a blueprint of pitfalls a company specifically needs to avoid if it has any chance for success.

That said, there are several positives to take away from the CD-i. When concluding The Future Was Here about the similarly forgotten Commodore Amiga, Jimmy Maher writes, “It is true, however, that the Amiga made many things possible first and in doing so gave the world a rough draft of its future” (269). The CD-i has been derided for many factors, including its peripherals as various incarnations of the multimedia system’s controllers were unwieldy. What was never mocked, however, was the actual hardware itself. The CD-i was a sturdy system that, like the Amiga, offered an image of what our multimedia devices would be doing years later. They would play video games. They would play CD-based or digital movies. They would connect to the Internet. They would become educational tools at home and in the classroom. Because of everything the CD-i got wrong, it is arguably the best example for game researchers of what not to do when introducing an innovative product. Perhaps one can’t help but ask the hypothetical question of what today’s multimedia landscape would be like had all of the factors that contributed to the CD-i’s demise were non-issues. It is amusing that Philips believed the CD-i was a “product that will never become obsolete” (Philips CD-Interactive Dealer Presentation Binder). What is equally amusing, however, is that multimedia devices are now taking on the same functions of what the CD-i first attempted nearly thirty years ago.

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