Multimedia eats the personal computer! Crime of
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1996. First
published in Computer Player, July 1996
You don?t hear much about multimedia these days.
A few years ago, it was all the rage?multimedia
upgrade kits, multimedia-ready. Look around? a few magazines with the
on their masthead, but that?s about it.
The reason for the decline of the term isn?t that it
it was enormously successful?so successful that it?s no longer a big
If you buy a new desktop computer, at least one that?s
home users, it almost certainly will be a multimedia computer?it will
a CD-ROM player, and sound card and speakers. And considering that the
original MPC (Multimedia Personal Computer) standard called for a
of a 286 with a single speed CD, and an 8-bit sound card, your typical
new machine will be quite a bit more capable?both for multimedia and
more prosaic computing. (Yes, the MPC standards have been updated
times since the early years).
Software, too, at least the products marketed for the
home, no longer
have to be labelled as multimedia. It?s simply assumed. Games and other
entertainment products, education and reference, and even applications
and operating systems are now packaged assuming that users have a
and sound support. What once was a noteworthy rarity has now become the
general standard. (After all, even if the product doesn?t really need
and sound, who wants to have to load a dozen or more floppy disks?)
CD and sound are rarer in the oh-so-serious world of
CDs make sense for installing large software packages, but most larger
enterprises do that over the network anyway. And while sound and video
may have their place in computer-based training, it hasn?t had much
in the typical office environment. While we?ve been able to embed
and video clips in those Excel and 1-2-3 spreadsheets for several years
now, does anyone actually do this?
Do It Yourself
On a very basic level, it?s always been possible to
make and distribute
your own multimedia documents. Even a minimalist application like
Write, the toy word-processor bundled with tens of millions of copies
Windows, allows users to embed graphics, animations, sounds, and
right into your word processor document. Using no more techniques than
simple copy and paste, school children can spice up that socials 6
on Ecuador with clips of Andean flute music, copied from a multimedia
encyclopedia. (Of course, they have to hope that the teacher has a
computer with a sound card?and they?ll find that such enhanced word
documents can quickly outgrow a floppy diskette).
And virtually any sound card allows users to plug in a
record their own sound files.
The past year or two, though, has seen an explosion of
hardware devices that allow users to easily work with a variety of
types. Some of my favorites include:
? Connectix QuickCam, resembling a white billiard
ball, it?s a low-priced
still and video camera. It needs to remain tethered to your computer,
still lets you quickly and easily assemble your own digital library.
$140 (CDN) for the widely available black and white model?a colour
is just showing up in the stores for about twice the price. For both
? Snappy, costing about $300, connects between a video
source like a
VCR or camcorder and your computer, allowing you to snap still pictures
from video, and save them digitally. Both Snappy and QuickCam bring the
ease of use long known by Mac users to PCs, as they plug into the
printer port?no more opening the case, and fiddling with the computer?s
A number of notable software products help users
assemble a presentable
? Delrina?s Echo Lake, for example, encourages users
to create a multimedia
personal or family history, including text with photos, sounds, and
home video. It even includes a CD of stock video footage to help jar
memory or spice up the recollections. All in an easy to use, and very
interface. Under $100.
? Vancouver?s Q-Media is more powerful and more
still reasonably easy to work with. It lets users assemble a multimedia
presentation, more aimed at business users. About $200.
As always, of course, there are a range of more
sophisticated (and more
expensive!) hardware and software products, aiming more at full-time
professionals... video capture products, video editing tools like Adobe
Premier, multimedia presentation packages like Macromedia Director,
can be used for anything from a product demo to a publishable CD.
Multimedia produces big files?typically too big to
distribute on floppy
disk, as even our Grade 6 Ecuador project showed. Users are getting a
range of options for saving and distributing those big files.
? In the 100-120 meg range, there?s the new breed of
like Iomega?s Zip drive, and Sysquest?s speedier EZ-120, both, again,
for both PC and Mac. Drives are around $300, with disks at about $20
Compaq is promising their own variety built-into new models.
disks from these models aren?t interchangeable, though Epson is selling
a clone of the Zip drive.
? If these are too small, there are removable products
Jaz, offering 1 gigabyte disks. Price is hovering around $1,000,
keeping this well-reviewed unit out of the price range of many users.
at this price point (or higher) is recordable CD-ROM: CD-R, from a
of manufacturers. These units are much less flexible than drives like
Jaz?they can?t simply be written like a hard drive, and it?s too easy
ruin a disk... I?ll wait until prices drop to the $500 range.
Can you wait?
Up-and-coming new technology promises benefits for
? DVD disks. This next generation of CD-ROM is
expected for later this
year. Originally designed as CD-sized disks that can hold a
movie, they also promise up to 7 gigs of digital data?over 10 times as
much as on current CDs. With multiple CD-disk games becoming more and
common, the benefits are obvious?but it will be a while before game
feel like there is enough of a hardware base to support releasing
to this format. (Most games are still optimized for last-generation?s
CD-ROMs rather than today?s faster units). Don?t expect recordable DVD
for another year or two.
? MPEG video hardware support. The Motion Picture?s
Expert Group standard
for digital video is the way to show full-screen video on our
There are software-only solutions to playing these highly-compressed
but they simply don?t work well enough; computers need hardware
to play MPEGs. Add-in cards like Sigma?s Reel-Magic have been available
for several years, but too few people have been willing to pay over
for this ability. Expect MPEG support to built into more standard video
cards and motherboards in the coming year.
? MMX Pentium cpus. Also expected later this year are
CPUs from Intel. We?ll have to wait to see whether these chips really
the multimedia market, but the advance publicity is promising.
Add in Universal Serial Bus or Firewire, two
standards to allow connection of all sorts of external devices to PCs
Macs, and we may see real advances in speed, power, and usability for
What about the Web?
The Internet changes everything.
Multimedia over the Internet is still more promise
than reality, like
everything on the Net, limited by bandwidth?don?t expect great sound
video over that modem line, unless you?re willing to spend 30 minutes
an hour to download a two minute video clip.
But multimedia over the Web is clearly the future.
Even now, sound-compression
techniques like Real Audio make it possible to get AM-radio sound
listening in ?real time?. Many are anxiously awaiting high-bandwidth
connections, like the not-yet-here cable modem Wave from Rogers Cable,
just one of several ways being tested to break the bandwidth
For now, however, perhaps the best solution combines
CD-ROM and telecommunications.
An example is the monthly Compuserve CD, which the on-line service uses
to provide multimedia enhancements and connections. While this
magazine can be viewed on its own, clicking on icons in the articles
connects to Compuserve, going to the appropriate area on the service.
Similarly, the new Compton?s multimedia encyclopedia
can hook the user
into either CompuServe or America-On-Line, while Microsoft provides
to (surprise) The Microsoft Network, from the newest editions of their
multimedia reference products, and even from applications such as Money
Expect more such hybrid products, as a way to combine
sound and video of CD-ROM with the up-to-the minute possibilities of
Internet and on-line services; it will be several years before the
on its own will be able to provide most home and small-business users
information fast enough to satisfy the needs of multimedia.