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Sunday, May 26, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bill Gates: 50,000 Computer Paintings On Call

The house that Billionaire Bill is building may have something for you.

Visitors to Microsoft chairman Gates' new mansion in Medina will find themselves in an electronic Disneyland where they will be able to "call up" a favorite painting or photograph on combination TV-computer screens.

Right now, only a billionaire could afford to try $80,000 monitors and $150,000 computer-storage devices (the house could have several) that may be needed to make this all work.

But that's for now.

It's possible that the systems Gates is testing will be found in the homes of the rich in less than a decade.

In time as prices fall, plain folk could enjoy their favorite paintings, too - provided, of course, they buy the software from Billion-dollar Bill.

A Gates-owned company, Interactive Home Systems, is searching the world for hardware and writing software programs that will allow an art collector to own 50,000 famous paintings instead of just one. The images could be stored in a device that would fit in a closet and be wired to screens throughout the house.

After a hard day of leveraged buyouts, a tired industrialist could come home and view something less taxing than cubism. Perhaps a sunset in Maui, displayed in dazzling colors on a high-definition screen.

It's not just pretty pictures that Gates and ultimately others will watch. Movies will seem real. Cookbooks, encyclopedias and history "books" will come alive, allowing a person to browse through sound, image and text, no longer restricted by the amount or sequence determined by editors.

Powerful software will track and record a person's interests as they go searching for those topics through electronic databases. As the software for these machines expands, a person too busy to travel could electronically visit a souk in Morocco.

To make this a reality, the employees of Interactive Home Systems are working in a full-scale mock-up of what will be a real room in the Gates home. They're writing software that would allow a person to talk with an image database in plain English. The hardware already exists to store and display the imagery. High-definition screens can be purchased in Japan or the United States. The works of the Louvre museum are already on computer disks, sold by a company in California.

Gates, through IHS, has been approaching museums and photo agencies with proposals to buy non-exclusive rights to turn their paintings, sculptures and photographs into digital images stored in the computer.

Others, too, are moving into this nascent field. But anyone who has watched Microsoft respects Gates' ability to clobber the competition.

"He is pursuing another dream," says Mark Karras of West Stock Inc., a Seattle photo agency that has been approached by IHS. "I'm sure he will be quite successful."

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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