Faltering IBM launches multimedia Fireworks

BLUES POWER: Despite its problems, or maybe because of them, IBM Corp. is setting up a unit that consolidates its efforts in multimedia. Called Fireworks Partners, the group will be making investments in small start-ups, but it will also coordinate joint ventures and handle marketing for this new arena.

Fireworks’ chief Bob Carberry was second in command for R&D in the PC group and now moves up. He’ll report directly to Jim Cannavino, the top man for PCs. Already under Carberry’s roof are three current projects: Kalieda Labs, the joint venture between IBM and Apple; NBC Desktop News; and HomeView Realty Search, a multimedia home-buying service in Boston.

Joining the team is Mike Braun’s multimedia software group in Atlanta, which has done deals with a few title developers in town.

“It’ll try and do some start-ups to move into the mainstream of multimedia,” said an IBM exec. “The idea is form a venture capital-like company.”

A possible deal with Blockbuster to do in-store kiosks with film clips would now fall under Fireworks’ purview.

Remember, the buzz at the CES is that IBM is hard at work on a multimedia player in Boca Raton, Fla.

ABRACADABRA: San Diego’s Presto Studios has just signed a deal with Japan’s Bandai Co. Ltd., that country’s largest toy manufacturer.

Using Bandai’s digital studio in Tokyo, Presto will turn its multimedia title “The Journeyman Project” into Japanese. “Journeyman,” a time-travel game for the Macintosh, uses Apple’s Quicktime 1.5 and has CD-quality audio. Debuting at MacWorld Expo in San Francisco earlier this month, it quickly sold 2,000 copies.

But after costing more than $ 200,000 and two years to make, the Bandai deal, says Presto president Michel Kripalani, will help recoup the investment. The deal, penned by Hikaru Sasahara, head of L.A.-based Interactive Media Agency, appears to be the first by a U.S. multimedia designer. Though Presto will initially work on Macintoshes, Bandai will open the doors to others.

“Obviously, the Mac penetration in Japan is quite low, but it will stimulate the market,” says Sasahara. “Next, we’ll make it for Fujitsu FM-Towns, Sony CD-ROM XA and NEC’s Turbographics player.”

More important, there’s Bandai the film company. Says Kripalani: “We’re also excited about working with Bandai’s content, starting with ‘Godzilla.’ ”

A HARRY’S HARRY: TV animation production just took a leap forward for Mac users. Providence, R.I.-based Company of Science & Art, or CoSA, has just released After Effect, a software program for compositing, layering and animation.

This appears to be the best solution to what’s called multilaying of effects. With Quantel’s Harry, the premier video effects machine, there’s a limit to the number of layers one can slap onto a video. Moreover, when one layer is finished , it has to be locked into place forever.

“With Harry you have to stick with a layer and can’t go back,” said David Herbstman, president of CoSA. “With After Effect, I can go back to the 57th one.”

Another plus is the way it renders animation. On TV, you aren’t really seeing 30 frames-per-second video. Instead, it’s a screen pulsating with 60 fields every second as the electron beam scans back and forth to present two lines of video. So computer animation won’t appear jumpy, you need to produce images in 60 fields, not 30 frames. While that’s a task left to the highest power computers, After Effect permits it on a lowly Mac.

“That’s the most amazing part,” says animation expertHarry Marks. “This goes at 60 fields per second, so the output is very smooth.”

After Effect retails for $ 1,295, but can be bought at an introductory price of $ 895 until Feb. 1.

AT THE FOREFRONT: Wavefront intro’d five new products on Tuesday to make computer animation and effects that puts it on par with Softimage’s Creative Environment suite of software.

The Santa Barbara-based Wavefront unveiled Dynamation for 3-D animation. It can depict physical effects like gravity and velocity on objects, and includes a library of nifty elements. For example, John Grower’s Santa Barbara Studios, which developed the program, used it to craft the comet in the title sequence of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”

“The comet tail,” said Grower, “is millions of ice particles that are streaming off the comet’s head, with shadowing and turbulence.” But it doesn’t come cheap with a $ 15,000 pricetag.

Other hot additions, Kinimation and Rotomation, make animation easier. With the former, characters will be able to have humanlike action by drawing a “motion-path” for an arm or a leg. Then there’s an upgraded version of Wavefront’s Video Composer, the workhorse program for compositing images and scene planning, for $ 10,000.

The new programs are another upgrade in capabilities for the elite 3-D software market, which now rings up around $ 60 million a year. “It’s a high-growth market, as evidenced by SoftImage’s growth rate,” said Robert Herwick, an analyst at Hambrecht & Quist in San Francisco. “That’s driven by the postproduction work in film. ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day,’ had five minutes, and ‘Jurassic’ will have even more. People are increasingly doing production with this software.”

Softimage, by the way, is the only public company in this market and racked up an $ 811,000, or 184%, increase in net income on $ 4.6 million, or 114% increse in revenues for the year ending Oct. 31.