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Multimedia development: what it takes?

Sooner or later we will all be able to effortlessly place multiple media elements into our every day documents, mail messages, presentations and "multimedia books". In the meantime, however, the task is left for multimedia developers on the "bleeding" edge to produce titles and content in a complex and changing time.

Multimedia developers are a very special breed. The development process is not for the faint of heart or the slight of talent. To build effective and engaging multimedia, the developer must walk the fine line between form and content. As such, they must be creative and analytical at the same time. They must understand how people learn and think as well as what information and content is most suitable for the topic at hand.

There are few who can do both well!

In this article we look at the development of multimedia from these unique perspectives. We will examine the skills required and issues of building engaging multimedia from a form and content point of view.

FIRST, WHAT DO WE MEAN...?

Before we begin, let's make sure we agree on what is meant by multimedia. For our purposes, multimedia is "the use of multiple media elements (sound, text, graphics, animation and video) stored primarily digitally and played back on a single delivery platform to provide interactive training, education and information." The key words are digital, interactive and integrated.

Watching CNN in a window on your computer is not digital (necessarily), interactive and only slightly integrated. It is not multimedia according to our definition. Watching clips from CNN that have been stored on a CD-ROM and activated through an interactive menu system with hypertext searching is multimedia in our definition.

MANAGING FORM AND USABILITY: THE RIGHT BRAIN...

To many people seeing multimedia for the first time, multimedia is all form. The "sizzle" of embedded full motion video with true-to-life CD quality sound combined with animation is impossible to ignore. As humans, our "multi-sensory" view of the world fits nicely and rises to the challenge of mass stimulus provided by multimedia elements.

The problem as you already can imagine is that the message gets lost in the medium. Or worse the medium is inappropriate for the message. Understand form means understanding the potential and pitfalls of using multiple media.

What you need to know...

I. Interface Design Standards

The user interface is the primary connection between the user and the computer. Understanding good interface design means understanding feedback mechanisms, use of fonts, and overall consistency. While many of the new operating systems -- such as Windows 3.x and OS/2 -- provide a level of consistency with text and graphics, there are fewer interface standards for animation, sound and video. Understanding the audience for your title is also critical for proper interface design. Questions at this stage include:

* How often will they use the application?'

* What's the audience literacy level (reading and computer)?; and

* How will they move through the information -- quickly, in real time, or casually browsing?

II. Usability

The ease of use or "usability" of multimedia is very closely related to the user interface. A multimedia title is "useable" when there is consistency of form and feedback. This is partly obtained by paying particular attention to the depth and breadth of choice and interactivity as well as the ease of navigation through the title. A title is "easy" to use if the user can become productive simply by knowing how to start the program.

III. Timing

The sequencing of events in a multimedia title is perhaps the most challenging of all. There are both technical and design considerations. If you are going to be displaying a complex animation, and at the same time CD Audio, the timing of events on a desktop machine with a limited multitasking operating system is very difficult and requires technical expertise beyond the casual developer. Many of the newer authoring platforms take care of these details. Another issue is that sequencing and timing on a powerful platform and then playing book on a less powerful system can cause unexpected results.

IV. Hyperlinking

A key element of our definition of multimedia is "interactivity". The ability to connect disparate elements of media and content in meaningful, flexible and unique ways is what "hyperlinking" is all about. It is a significant design challenge to be able to visualize the paths taken by the end user ahead of time and design intuitive navigation mechanisms to accommodate them.

CONTENT ACQUISITION: THE LEFT BRAIN...

Acquiring the content in a multimedia development project requires a significant amount of technical (and detective!) skills. Bringing in elements from many different sources, formats and standards requires a sound grasp of technical fundamentals. The situation continues to improve as authoring platforms become more sophisticated and standards for media storage emerge.

What you need to know...

The most important decision in multimedia content acquisition is the "make or buy" decision. Simply stated, if you want to produce proprietary, personalized multimedia content or "assets" you have to spend more time and money. While the technology exists to produce full motion video right from your home movies, most of these would not be acceptable in commercial applications. As such, the costs of developing multimedia from scratch is very high.

The obvious factors to consider when choosing between "making and buying" are:

* The scope of distribution of the title (i.e. is this intended to be a widely distributed, "show case" title or is it for a presentation to a group of colleagues);

* The budget;

* The sophistication level of audience; and

* The sophistication of the playback hardware.

The Tools of the Trade...

If you are on the "making end" of a multimedia title, the following is a brief overview of some of the basic components in the multimedia developer's "tool kit".

1) Multimedia Database Managers

Keeping track of multimedia data types for easy retrieval and searching is vital. There are a few examples such as Lenel Systems International Inc.'s Media Organizer.

2. Graphics Production

Graphic production includes the ability to create, manipulate, store and print bit-mapped and vector based graphics. There is a wide variety of products available for the MacIntosh and Intel based machines include Aldus Freehand and Adobe Illustrator for both platforms and Corel Draw 3.0 for Windows and OS/2.

3) Video Capture & Overlay

This software allows video to be mixed with animation, graphics and sound. This is currently a rapidly changing area. Many of the new Authoring packages such as Authorware and MediaScript work directly with video boards, such as the ActionMedia II board from IBM through Windows or OS/2 standard device drivers. Apple's Quick-Time has spawned a whole range of desktop video editing solutions such as Adobe Premiere.

4) Animation Development

If you play on moving graphics images over time and space, you will need an animation package. Luckily there are standard packages that are widely supported including MacroMind Director and Autodesk's Animator PRO.

5) "Clip Media"

This is another hot area. An extension of the "clip art" concept from desktop publishing, Clip Media provides digital sounds, video and animation in standard formats for placing into multimedia authoring and presentation packages. This is an excellent and relatively inexpensive method of producing titles with standard non-proprietary images.

6) Authoring Platforms

At last count there were over 30 different authoring packages available on the market for both the Macintosh and Intel based machines. The choice is difficult and even a brief mention is beyond the scope of this article. Recent issues of PC Magazine, MacWorld and Datamation provide some background on choosing the right package and are well worth the read.

THINGS TO THINKS ABOUT...

As a developer of Multimedia titles, there are a number of things to think about before and during development. These include:

Standards

As a new industry that is a mix of many other established industries, there is currently a lack of standards upon which hardware and software vendors can safely rely. Microprocessors, compression and decompression algorithms, sound and video file formats and CD-ROM formats are examples where there is a need for industry wide standards to emerge. Very large organizations have significant amounts of money invested in particular standards and are willing to let the market decide the eventual winner. The down-side is that consumers of multimedia may get caught. Certain standards are, however, beginning to emerge. The popularity of the graphical interface (Windows 3.x and OS/2) has resulted in a significant number of authoring languages, media interfaces and file formats to be tried and tested by a large number of consumers.

The current popularity of the Digital Video compression and playback technology - DVI is also a benefit to digital video producers and content authors.

Compression

The ability of digital audio and video to be stored and retrieved in real time depends entirely on the existence of compression technology. A single full frame of digital video can be up to 1 mb in size and there are 30 frames per second in standard film. The use of dedicated microprocessors and sophisticated compression algorithms has resulted in compression of up to 100:1. Even at this rate, file sizes can be enormous and will tax all but the latest desktop computers. Examples of compression techniques include, DVI (digital Video interactive), JPEG and MPEG.

Networks & MMCBT

While compression technology, CD-ROM, and hard disk capacity are slowly bringing MMCBT to the average desktop, the largest payback will come when the storage of digital data will be centralized with high speed networks distributing MMCBT to the desktop. This requires network bandwidth far beyond what is currently justifiable for the average desktop user. Advances in telecommunications standards such as FDDI and ISDN.

Content Ownership

The ability to quickly and easily modify digital media is its greatest asset. It is also the greatest liability. We have all seen what has happened to the software industry because of the ease of copying one disk to another (similarly with home taping -- audio & video). The spectre of an all digital world not governed by explicit or consistent copyright legislation is concerning. Some people have predicated that the MMCBT industry will not fully happen until copyright and content ownership issues are resolved.

Time/Costs to Build

There are varying estimates on the cost of the "mythical hour" of multimedia content. There are so many variables that it is difficult to estimate. Ranges are from $5,000 to $100,000 per hour of Multimedia. Whatever figure is used, the following points should be kept in mind when developing:

1) Upfront design time is usually underestimated and is the prime source of inflated time and cost estimates overall. Front-end load your time estimates -- it will be worthwhile!

2) Content acquisition is always more costly and time consuming than you imagine. Be VERY careful about copyright issues. If you don't own the content you can't use it in commercial multimedia title without permission. Getting that permission is time consuming. "Re-purpose" existing media (video, audio etc.) existing within the organization.

TECHNOLOGY TRENDS & ISSUES

Because there is so much disparate technology involved with multimedia development, and because the technology is advancing very quickly, it is risky to make predictions in this area. There are some things that should be mentioned however:

1) Storage

Trends indicate that hard disks sizes will approach 10 GB in the $1000 price range within 12 to 18 months. This is critical for the authoring platforms and for the network storage of Multimedia elements. Another key development is the advancement in the area of optical storage. Trends include:

* Re-writable optical drives,

* Double capacity drives (storage over 1 GB in CD-ROM size)

* Higher speed

2) Compression

The algorithms for compression and decompression will continue to advance. Some of the more promising include Fractal Compression, MPEG II and Px64. Each provide certain benefits though none is a clear favourite. Compression will lead to 100:1 full motion, full screen digital video in real time.

Another trend will be to put compression hardware and software built directly on the motherboard and into the core of the operating system.

3) Mobility

As the computer becomes mobile, so will the multimedia access potential. Prototypes of portable CD-ROM multimedia "players" are already being demonstrated and will have significant impact on the consumer markets.

4) Software

In the next 12 to 18 months, software authoring will become platform independent. Media file formats and peripheral control will also become standard and cross platform.

5) Courseware

The future trend will be the wide spread availability of general purpose training and education available on-line -- similar to the "pay-per-view" movie concept. All digital training and education will create new means of wide spread distribution of information, education and training.

6) Networks

The distribution of full digital multimedia to the desktop in real time will require bandwidth (|greater than~ 100 Mbps). At present this means fibre optic to the desk. The vast majority of organizations will not be able to justify the expense in the next 18 months. Thus compression technology will be critical in the near term.

THE MULTIMEDIA AUTHOR'S DREAM SYSTEM: (for now!)

Putting together the ideal system can be expensive and a technical challenge. Several hardware manufacturers (such as IBM and Tandy) have put together multimedia configurations. Few match the configuration below. So, if we could build a dream system from scratch, this is what it would include:

(INTEL Based Platform or Macintosh)

* 486-50 DX2 with 16 Mb RAM, (INTEL) Mac Quadra 900 with 20 Mb Ram

* 1.2 GB Hard Disk (SCSI-2)

* 24 Bit Colour high resolution display

* CD-ROM (|less than~ 300 Ms)

* Colour Scanner

* 16 Bit 44Khz sample rate sound card with MIDI interface

* Video capture and overlay Card

* Video Compression

* Microphone

* Stereo Speakers (and headphones to avoid disturbing the office!)

* OS/2.20 / Win 3.1

Based on current street prices, this system could be purchased for approximately $12,000 to $15,000 depending on the make and model of the purchase. Additional costs for authoring and content development software could bring the cost of the system over $20,000.

SUMMARY

Developing multimedia titles requires a "special breed of cat" as someone once said. The challenges and rewards are high. The essential thing to remember is that the inclusion of multiple media in a presentation, course or book does not make the message more or less understandable by default. Significant skills are required and few people have all of them. We are dealing not only with new technology but a completely new method of presenting and interacting with information. As the "Multimedia Authoring Guide" from Microsoft says when comparing the electronic document with a printed book,

"An electronic document differs substantially from a printed one. Books have existed for centuries and people understand how they look and work. Books have substance and weight. Everyone knows what to expect from a book".

Jim Gibson is a partner in GSA Consulting Group Inc. He is responsible for emerging technologies for the firm. For his clients, he provides on-going technical planning and consultation including multimedia strategies, systems planning, training, communication strategies and network design, personnel evaluation, desktop publishing and systems development.

GSA provides a full range of management consulting services in information technology to a broad cross section of clients. They help clients manage technology and manage with technology.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Canadian Institute of Management
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Gibson, Jim
Publication:Canadian Manager
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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