Multimedia eats the personal computer! Crime of the decade!

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 standards, multimedia upgrade kits, multimedia-ready. Look around? a few magazines with the word on their masthead, but that?s about it.

The reason for the decline of the term isn?t that it failed?instead, it was enormously successful?so successful that it?s no longer a big deal.

If you buy a new desktop computer, at least one that?s marketed for home users, it almost certainly will be a multimedia computer?it will include a CD-ROM player, and sound card and speakers. And considering that the original MPC (Multimedia Personal Computer) standard called for a minimum 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 for more prosaic computing. (Yes, the MPC standards have been updated several 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 CD-ROM 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 video 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 business computing. 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 impact in the typical office environment. While we?ve been able to embed sounds 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 Windows Write, the toy word-processor bundled with tens of millions of copies of Windows, allows users to embed graphics, animations, sounds, and video-clips, right into your word processor document. Using no more techniques than simple copy and paste, school children can spice up that socials 6 project on Ecuador with clips of Andean flute music, copied from a multimedia CD-ROM encyclopedia. (Of course, they have to hope that the teacher has a compatible computer with a sound card?and they?ll find that such enhanced word processor documents can quickly outgrow a floppy diskette).

And virtually any sound card allows users to plug in a microphone and record their own sound files.

The past year or two, though, has seen an explosion of simple-to-use hardware devices that allow users to easily work with a variety of media 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, but still lets you quickly and easily assemble your own digital library. About $140 (CDN) for the widely available black and white model?a colour model is just showing up in the stores for about twice the price. For both Mac and Windows.

? 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 external printer port?no more opening the case, and fiddling with the computer?s innards.

A number of notable software products help users assemble a presentable multimedia document.

? Delrina?s Echo Lake, for example, encourages users to create a multimedia personal or family history, including text with photos, sounds, and digitized home video. It even includes a CD of stock video footage to help jar the memory or spice up the recollections. All in an easy to use, and very attractive interface. Under $100.

? Vancouver?s Q-Media is more powerful and more straightforward, while 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 multi-media professionals... video capture products, video editing tools like Adobe Premier, multimedia presentation packages like Macromedia Director, which 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 new range of options for saving and distributing those big files.

? In the 100-120 meg range, there?s the new breed of removable disks, like Iomega?s Zip drive, and Sysquest?s speedier EZ-120, both, again, available for both PC and Mac. Drives are around $300, with disks at about $20 each. Compaq is promising their own variety built-into new models. Unfortunately, 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 like Iomega?s Jaz, offering 1 gigabyte disks. Price is hovering around $1,000, however... keeping this well-reviewed unit out of the price range of many users. Also at this price point (or higher) is recordable CD-ROM: CD-R, from a number of manufacturers. These units are much less flexible than drives like the Jaz?they can?t simply be written like a hard drive, and it?s too easy to ruin a disk... I?ll wait until prices drop to the $500 range.

Can you wait?

Up-and-coming new technology promises benefits for multimedia. These include:

? DVD disks. This next generation of CD-ROM is expected for later this year. Originally designed as CD-sized disks that can hold a feature-length 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 more common, the benefits are obvious?but it will be a while before game developers feel like there is enough of a hardware base to support releasing software to this format. (Most games are still optimized for last-generation?s double-speed 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 computers. There are software-only solutions to playing these highly-compressed files, but they simply don?t work well enough; computers need hardware optimized 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 $500 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 these multimedia-enhanced CPUs from Intel. We?ll have to wait to see whether these chips really revolutionize the multimedia market, but the advance publicity is promising.

Add in Universal Serial Bus or Firewire, two high-speed up-and-coming standards to allow connection of all sorts of external devices to PCs and Macs, and we may see real advances in speed, power, and usability for multimedia hardware.

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 and video over that modem line, unless you?re willing to spend 30 minutes to 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 quality, listening in ?real time?. Many are anxiously awaiting high-bandwidth home connections, like the not-yet-here cable modem Wave from Rogers Cable, just one of several ways being tested to break the bandwidth bottleneck.

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 multimedia magazine can be viewed on its own, clicking on icons in the articles automatically 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 hooks to (surprise) The Microsoft Network, from the newest editions of their multimedia reference products, and even from applications such as Money or Publisher.

Expect more such hybrid products, as a way to combine the high-bandwidth sound and video of CD-ROM with the up-to-the minute possibilities of the Internet and on-line services; it will be several years before the Internet on its own will be able to provide most home and small-business users with information fast enough to satisfy the needs of multimedia.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan