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Interview with Peer Custers
It's an often overlooked aspect that CD-i was all about the progression of CD, an interactive design. A good idea in theory but very difficult to communicate these ideas to an audience that still had difficulty working a VCR let alone surf the latest innovations offered by CD-i. Technology is the key and CD-i players gave plenty of it with CD-Audio, Photo-CD, VideoCD and of course CDinteractive. Surely an all in one box couldn't fail? In retrospect Philips were terribly wrong if the vague rumours of a $2 Billion lose are to be believed. Undoubtedly the format was a failure. Talking to Peer Custers, a man at the forefont of CD-i design we finally get a chance to peel back the thinking behind this technology and some of the innovations that perhaps deserves more attention.

Devin: Can you tell us a little about your work at Philips and what your job involved?

Peer Here's a short overview of my career at Philips...

March 1961: Started at Philips International, Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

1961 - 1966: PII (Philips International Institute of Technological Studies). It was a kind of Technical University within Philips. On basis of scholarships donated by local Philips organisations worldwide, students from developing countries could participate in program, focused at electronic studies on master level. PII does not exist anymore.

1966 - 2000: Product Management functions in: “Consumer Recording” (cassette recorders and open reel recorders), “Phono” (turntables and pickup cartridges), “Compact Disc” (consumer players), “Consumer PC’s” (286-386 laptop computers), “CD-i” (consumer and professional products) (from 1991 up to 1997) and “Set Top Boxes” (digital satellite receivers).

February 2000: Retirement.

The Product Management job can best be described as a "linking pin" between market and industry. This process of continuous communication between market and industry and vice versa is the main task of a Product Manager. On basis of all kinds of market information, both quantitative and qualitative, specifications of products are drafted. In parallel styling concepts are worked out into product designs. First on basis of computer renderings (in my early days these were conventional drawings on paper). The next step is 3D-renderings, followed by real models (called dummies or mock-ups). Final selection is made. Commercial introduction of the product is scheduled on basis of the start of the selling season. Sales of new consumer electronics products usually start in September with a peak in December. It then slows down and already in February/March prices are dropping (special discounts, action models, etc.). In May the trade is informed of the new range of products to be introduced for the new season. Selling in (sales to the trade) already starts. In cooperation with product development and production estimates are made for cost price and required development and tooling budgets. A project plan is drafted. Once all parties involved have agreed to all parameters, the project gets the green light. Development starts and progress is monitored on basis of so-called "milestones" agreed upon in the project plan. Product Management plays a major role as they have to safeguard that product specifications are respected, the timeline is respected, development budget is not exceeded, and cost price is in line with the targeted price. Prior to the introduction of the product a team consisting of Product Management, Marketing Management and Marketing Communication, prepares all required information for the trade and the consumer, such as sales staff training, catalogue sheets and detailed product information.

Devin: What challenges did CD-i hardware represent in the design of its peripherals?

Peer: In the early days of CD-i there only was the CD-i player with its controller. Other hardware peripherals were not involved as it could be connected to any television set the same way a VCR was connected. Successive CD-i players still had the same purpose: to be hooked up to the TV in the living room. As the catalogue of CD-i titles (this was the name we used to describe the software) widened, CD-i was also used in children’s rooms. On condition of course that a TV set was available. At that time the saturation of TV in USA was already approx. 300%, meaning 3 TV-sets per household. At that time the catalogue comprised titles of general interest, movies, sports, games, training, reference works, etc. In this framework other CD-i controllers were designed for better matching the changing market requirements. For movies we had to develop the Digital Video Cartridge (DVC). This cartridge had to be inserted in a special slot in the player. All players, from the first model onwards, were DVC-ready, as movies were planned from day one onwards. At a later stage cheaper models were built as market prices had to decrease to a level where CD-i could perform a market breakthrough. In USA this meant a street price of USD 299 (in 1994!). The CDI450 (the small top loader) was specifically designed to meet this price point. A very straightforward reply to the question: no peripherals and no challenge!

Devin: The first generation of CD-i controllers were fairly poor for gaming purposes. Were you involved in the evolution of this original controller into the commander and later gamepad models far better suited to game playing?

Peer: As I joined CD-i in 1991 the first consumer CD-i player with its remote controller (the one with the little joystick on top) was on the market already. As games were in development at the Interactive Media Applications development centres, a demand rose for special controllers. A special international meeting was devoted to this subject. Problem at that time was that game consoles were not yet that popular, so there was not much knowledge about game controllers. In hindsight one could say that this lack of knowledge, combined with the lack of confidence that CD-i could perform as a games platform, had a major influence on the outcome of that meeting to not design specific game controllers. Emphasis in development should be on generic controllers. My role in that meeting was restricted as I joined CD-i only recently.

Devin: The prototype controller fused the trackball controller with the portability of the commander remote, what niche was this designed to fullfill in the market and why wasn't it mass produced?

Peer: That prototype actually would have come into production were it not that at that time the decision already had been taken to stop future developments in CD-i. The prototype Steph has actually is a sample of the second Trial Run. In parallel with the controller a docking station was developed to charge the batteries. This controller was designed on one hand to better meet gamers’ requirements whilst at the same time it also could be used for generic CD-i purposes. The device also has been designed symmetrically in view of persons that are left handed.

Prototype Controller Prototype Controller Prototype Controller

Devin: DVC was seemingly planned from day one of CD-i hardware development, did the module fit expectations at Philips, any difficulties making the DVC into a practical upgrade at retail?

Peer: It indeed was planned from day one, but the availability and price of the decoding chip as well as the support of the content providers to bring existing and coming films on the Video CD format hampered an earlier introduction. The first consumer CD-i player CDI 910/CDI 205 already featured the slot for the DV-cartridge. It surely fitted expectations albeit that we underestimated its effect: in the early days production could not keep up with the demand. It appeared to be a rather practical way of upgrading a product: installation was quite simple. It has to be said however that the average consumer was a little bit afraid of really exerting some force to fit the DV-cartridge properly. At that time PC’s could hardly be found in homes, so there was no experience with inserting modules into slots and that one needs a bit of force to properly put the board in place. Some customers brought their CD-i player with the DV-cartridge back to the dealer with the complaint that it didn’t work. The retailer just had to push it properly in! Not directly related to DVC, but maybe interesting in view of the introduction of it: in the early days of Video CD films it clearly could be noticed that the encoding technology had to be sophisticated as the compression rate was too high. This resulted in visible “blocks”. A good example for this phenomenon was the first release of the “Hunt for Red October”.

Devin: A gaming specific module that would fit in the DVC slot has been rumoured for many years. Can you lend any credibility to this story or is it simply the Rumour Mill turning?

Peer: I was responsible for the assignment and registration of model numbers, among others. A gaming module has never been seriously planned. There was this generic policy that CD-i should remain a multi-standard product, e.g. CD-Audio, Photo CD, Video CD and CD-i applications capable. Coming to think of it: bringing a gaming module fitting in the DVC slot would have caused at least an inconvenience to the user as DV-Cartridge and Gaming cartridge would have to be exchanged regularly, depending on the application. As a CD-i player usually is placed in a stack with other hardware this absolutely would not have been a decent solution!

Devin: Coming from a hardware background we have to ask you this question. Obviously CD-i was intended as a new format such as CD-Audio, VCD, PhotoCD with the intent to lure third party hardware developers in to produce self branded players. LG, Grundig and even Sony [to a lesser extent] answered the call, it's said that Panasonic were also involved from launch. However due to a hardware glitch the full inventory of Panasonic players were scrapped, disposing of half the worlds CD-i players in one swoop. Do you have any knowledge or further information about this disastrous launch and why Panasonic never entered the arena of CD-i again.

Peer: CD-i wasn’t only a new format, it combined other formats as well. It appeared that this confused the consumer and it was quite difficult, to say the least, to bring the message across. I personally think this was part of the problem and also contributed to the failure of CD-i. In one of my previous replies I mentioned that the lack of support from the software industry to create CD-i titles in favour of CD-ROM’s actually initiated “the fall and decline of the CD-i empire”. “Luring third parties into self-branded players” isn’t the right expression: by introducing a new format within the world of companies adhering to the “Red Book” standard at first and later other coloured book standards, the way for competition is open. On the other hand partners have been looked for and found. It is hardly possible to be successful introducing a new format on one’s own. Even CD Audio, an almost perfect example of a very successful introduction, would not have penetrated the market that fast without partners and (early) competition. I am afraid I can not help you any further as the Panasonic story does not ring a bell with me!

Devin: It's quite evident the multitude of players caused endless headaches for developers. In retrospect do you think it was wise to flood the market with so many different CD-i players with sub-variations within each niche [specifically ROM/BIOS internal operating system], possibly confusing the consumer?

Peer: This “multitude” was greatly a necessary evil, as we say in Dutch. First of all there was an enormous pressure on cost price as well a need to extend the product range offering the consumer a choice. Cost price reduction were obtained by developing new generations of “mother boards” as we would call them now. Integration of CD-i in TV and in audio stacks was envisaged and realised in the later phase of CD-i. Secondly there was the fact that we had to cater for a professional market as well. The professional market started to discover the benefits of a CD-i player attached to a TV in comparison of a PC with a monitor. Bear in mind CD-ROM wasn’t that popular yet. We got a lot of requests for PoP/PoS-applications, both soft- and hardware. Touch screen applications became a very hot item. I don’t think the consumer was confused by the flood of “so many different CD-i players with sub-variations within each niche (specifically ROM/BIOS internal operating system)” as this description encompasses the total product range, both in time as in market segment. At a moment in time the consumer looks for a product and selects one from a range. The only thing we were obliged to in the framework of respecting a self-created standard was to ensure that there always was a compatibility, both back- and forwards with soft- and hardware.

Devin: I understand you had a part to play in the design of the excellent commander remote control. Care to share any anecdotes?

Peer: The Commander might look a bit awkward, as its tip containing the IR transmitter points down. As this is unusual in the world of remote control, it needs a bit of elucidation. During various tests over time with consumer behaviour I always noticed that people tend to bend their hand down in which they hold a remote control and "shoot" at the set. It does not matter if it is a remote control for a TV set, an Audio stack or whatsoever. Apparently this is done intuitivily to point the remote control to the receiving eye of the set properly. Bending your hand down is O.K. as long it is not for a longer period. CD-i however, because of its interactive nature, requires bending your hand in that position for quite a long time. And that is inconvenient as you tend to overstrain. In the designing stage I requested our design people to modify the shape of the Commander and put the nose under an angle of approx, 30° downwards. As this was unprecedented in the Philips' world of remote controls, it took me quite some time and trouble to convince them. We did tests with two models: straight nose and tilted nose. The test group clearly preferred the tilted nose as they observed that the position of the hand was more natural, causing less strain. That is how the Commander got his "tilted" nose. Less spectacular as reindeer Rudolph's red nose, I fear, but the Commander is not a fable!

Prototype Roller Controller and the Commander

Devin: The arrival of Microsofts xbox360, Nintendos Wii and recently the Sony PlayStation3, yet again we see hardware trying to tap into mass market appeal. With Wii channels and downloadable content offered through the PS3 and 360. The later even offers TV on demand with instant access to music, video and photos. Sounds familiar? In retrospect what do you consider the main Achilles heal of CD-i and do you believe it would've been anymore successful if it was pitched as a fully fledged games machine?

Peer: CD-ROM (Yellow Book) as a data carrier followed suit. In 1986 the CD-I (Blue Book) was introduced as an interactive multi-media standard for e.g. games, movies. Of course it had to play CD-DA discs. Derived standards, such as Enhanced CD (CD+), a combination of CD-DA and CD-ROM XA tracks, were introduced. It had to play on a CD-i player. At the time the products came on the market (early 90s) the Photo CD (Beige Book) was introduced and the CD-i players had to accept this format as well. The CD-i player was positioned as a very versatile product: you could play your Audio CD's, you could show your photo's, you could play games, you could watch movies. All kinds of interactive applications both for the consumer as for the professional market were developed. The consumer was confronted with a hardware problem too: the CD-i player has to be hooked up to both the TV set as to the audio installation. In most of the cases the TV and the audio stack were not put in the same place in the living room. This caused an inconvenience. The main problem however was that the consumer could not understand why he should buy a CD-i player as it offered a multitude of functionalities for which he was not looking. Marketing such a product appeared to be very complex as consumers apparently were not interested in a such a product. A dedicated product (a CD player, a Photo CD player, a games machine): that was understood, but a CD-i player with all its possibilities? Interactivity: what is that? Interactivity was only understood by gamers, but not by "Tom, Dick and Harry", who just wanted to listen to their CD's or look at photo's at the most. The rate at which interactive applications were developed and introduced compared to the acceptance of the system by the public was not in pace: too much emphasis on hardware and not enough grip on the software. Marketing communications did not succeed in bringing the message across. At a certain moment the software industry lost the belief in CD-i and put more effort in games and CD-ROM's. In hindsight: the beginning of the fall of CD-i was the fact that the consumer did not understand "interactivity". MarCom did not succeed in bringing the message across. And then the software industry lost their belief. Exit CD-i.

Interactive CD was a brilliant idea, but it simply was a product that rather confused the consumer than offering a solution. Yes: it offered solutions, but not the ones the consumers were waiting for. If CD-i would have been developed as a fully-fledged games machine, I personally doubt if it would have been anymore successful. At that time our IMS (Interactive Media Systems) organisation had no experience at all in games. Yes, there were games, but as I stated in an earlier interview: no interest in the design and development of real games related devices. To introduce a successful games platform one needs a dedicated organisation with staff that is hooked up to games. You should understand gamers to be able to make games.

Peer Custers was interviewed by Devin

With many thanks to Peer for answering our questions, and a debt of gratitude to Steph for his help and persistance!

For more interesting CD-i collectables visit Stephs site, under the Philips CD-i section.

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