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Mucho Media Alphabet Soup

Peter B. Sugarman

Multimedia isn't new, it's our natural state of being. We are multimedia creatures, taking in our world through at least five senses (possibly more for NeoWobblies).

Even using computer control of media to simulate a multi-channel, multi-sensory experience is nothing new; a training branch of the video industry has been doing this with interactive videodisc (IVD) since the 1970s. This is new? I know lots of people who can't even remember the '70s.

The Multimedia Tag Team

Ed Mullin of Sony Corporation is fond of saying: "What is multi- media? The definition shifts depending on what the definer is trying to sell you..."

It's a real wrestling match out there, with chips, storage media, greed, and aggressive marketing all pummeling each other for fun and profit. We may not be able to predict who will take whom to the mat (or to the cleaners), but we can identify some of the more colorful contenders. They break down into several tag teams:

Optical Storage

Here's what's getting most of the press these days. You can store great gobs of data on one of these shiny discs. Any kind of data: a shelf full of books, a day of AM radio, an hour of CD audio, a small bit of full-motion video, a larger bit of not-so-full-motion video... It's up to you to pick and choose among a cornucopia of formats. Optical Storage comes in several flavors:

Analog Videodisc - This silver disc is the big brother of all these squabbling media siblings. Available since the '70s, analog videodisc allows computer control of video for the creation of interactive videodisc programs. Analog seems to be the media that won't die. The new kids sneer at this older brother, calling analog storage old fashioned. Horsepuckies! Standing the test of time, this is the only videodisc medium actually in widespread use today. And then there's the Baskin Robbins of optical storage...

The Compact Disc - There are so many different flavors of these lil' silver discs. They include:

CD Audio - CD Audio was the fastest adoption of a new technology in history. It killed vinyl.

CD+G - basically CD Audio plus graphics. Titles in this format have been published for several years, but are still waiting for the hardware that will show them on your TV.

CDV - a format which hasn't caught on, but refuses to die basically a "45 single" analog videodisc.

CD-ROM - holds up to 550 MB of digital information. CD-ROM is driving all the fevered multimedia hoopla. It's portable, dense enough to hold big data, and able to share, to some degree, the economies of scale afforded by its predecessor, the audio CD. The only hang-up is needing a CD-ROM player to access the information. Still, costs of these units are dropping rapidly as the technology battles its way onto the business desktop. 1993 may well be the "year of the CD-ROM", when it finally leaves the days of being a "zero-billion dollar industry" behind.

CD-I - Announced prematurely years ago, CD-I stands for Compact Disc Interactive. Can you say "couch potato?" This is multimedia for the
home. It won't look like a computer more like a stereo component, and will play on your TV set. This will teach us old folks what young Nintendoids have known all their lives: touch the TV and the TV touches you. One the early contenders who have actually made it to market, this tech could finally put interactive multimedia in the hands of the masses ("couchware," here we come!). Of course, it's not alone in its attempt to capture that lucrative market...

CDTV - Commodore Computer stole some of CD-I's thunder by bringing their competing product, CDTV, to market first. At the Microsoft CD-ROM conference, this unit was described as the "Trojan Horse" which will insinuate itself into the lives of the computer illiterate. It's essentially an Amiga computer cross-dressed as a mild-mannered entertainment device.

VIS - Tandy's entry into this contest, the Visual Information System (VIS) has not been setting the world on fire. The main thing in it's favor is the ease enjoyed while bringing Windows software onto this new platform. Very little code has to be re-written, because VIS was the first device to run under Modular Windows, a subset of that popular GUI, which was designed specifically for use in media devices.

PHOTO-CD - This is shaping up to be one of the more important contenders. Created by Kodak, at first glance PHOTO-CD doesn't sound like much. It'll store 100 photos on a lil' silver disc. Each image is stored in 5 different formats, from a thumbnail snapshot you can browse through up to a high-density image with more data than High Definition TV. And then there's the new capacities, being able to store audio and text on the same disc. But the greatest impact is that the PHOTO-CD is emerging as a format supported by it's competitors.

CD-ROM XA - CD-I will be able to do tricks that plain vanilla CD-Roms can't. CD-ROM XA (for eXtended Architecture) will bridge the gap. Backed by Sony, this technology is available in their Multimedia CD-ROM Player, a unit which integrates a PC CPU, LCD display panel, speaker, keyboard, and cursor pad into a two pound package that fits in your hand.

3DO - Here, halfway through '93, 3DO is the big mystery player. In its first iteration, this is another box based on data delivered on CD-ROM. There are, though, a number of things that make it stand out from the crowd. The hardware platform is going to be extremely lusty, a full-bore 32 bit screamer that's going to chew up photo-realistic 3D animation like nobody's business. If the investors in this tech are any indicator - AT&T, Matsushita (world's largest consumer electronics manufacturer), Time Warner, and MCA. this is a platform that just might walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

All these different CD-ROM formats are waiting for new and better compression schemes to permit them to show full-screen, full-motion video. In the meantime, they make do with text, graphics, sounds, animation, and video which is either smaller than full screen, or slower than 30 frames per second.

Other Battles

Smart TV's - There are other arenas, besides optical storage, where science and the marketplace are spoiling for a fight. As we all know, computers have gone from room size to palm size. As soon as computers start ducking inside our appliances, the Smart TV will move into our living rooms. It'll be your media agent, taking notes on your viewing habits, taping what you missed, even when you didn't bother to find out what was on. Your interests will be its commands. Besides the improvement in the human/machine interface, program quality will also improve because of the digital signal. And, you'll be able to manipulate the pictures and sounds to your heart's delight. Today's football widows have given us a taste of what's to come.

Video Compression - The search for new and better ways to compress video data is the commercial equivalent of the race to the moon. The stakes are tremendous. When video shrinks to fit inside a phone cable, it'll be a whole new ballgame. Why buy a movie if you can get it downloaded into your Smart TV? Every film in the vaults of major Hollywood studios could be a phone call away. The mind boggles.

Computer Publishing - Actually, we don't have to wait for our computers and TVs to mate and breed Smart TVs. Often overlooked is the fact that computers themselves represent a new medium, a new platform to publish on. The advent of affordable digital video (QuickTime on the Mac, Video For Windows (VFW) for the IBM boxes) opens up exciting publishing vistas. Using the computing power of the display vehicle, these documents can respond to the user, and in that interaction, present a new experience with each use. Touch the computer and the computer touches you...

What Will Survive?

The answer is simple. Nothing. Should this inhibit your adoption of new media into your life? Of course not. If you have an itch, scratch it. If multimedia can help you solve a problem at work, or provide home entertainment which encourages something better than legume emulation, go for it. Don't worry about whether there will be a newer, sexier, faster technology waiting in the wings. There always will be. If you wait for it, you'll never get the pleasure from what's here for you now.

Ok, so what can you start with, here and now? A basic multimedia system that will probably age more graceful than you will consists of a Mac LC and a CD-ROM Player. A HyperCard Player and facilities for digitizing sound both come bundled with the Mac. QuickTime is also included, enabling you to show digital video on the LC using software only, no expensive hardware add ons. Amiga systems are also worth exploring as they pack a lot of multimedia computing power at reasonable cost.

Remember that if you buy a technical solution, one that helps solve a real problem for you today, it'll continue to help you solve problems. Even while new solutions come along and grab the headlines, it'll keep chugging away, provided the product was a good one to begin with. Don't wait for the perfect product. It's a moving target, so you might as well give it your best shot.

What will survive? You will hopefully with your sense of wonder intact. It's a strange, terrifying, and miraculous world.


There are a growing number of magazines that cater to the multimedia market. Perusing them should help you make intelligent choices when purchasing a multimedia system. My favorites are:

Verbum: Journal of Personal Computer Aesthetics. PO Box 12564, San Diego, CA 92112-3564, $24/4 issues. This magazine has developed right alongside the media and art tools that it covers. It's slick, loose, and arty. Kind of a Mondo 2000 for the computer graphics crowd.

Multimedia and Videodisc Monitor. $347/year, PO Box 26, Falls Church, VA 22040-0026. A monthly corporate report that stays on top of multimedia innovations and innovators.

NewMedia. $36/year. l901 Mariner's Island Blvd., Ste. 365, San Mateo, CA 94404. Subscriptions from PO Box l1771, Riverton, NJ 08077. A magazine worth keeping an eye on. The hippest formatting of the "industry" magazines.

Computer Pictures. $40/year, Bimonthly. 701 Westchester Ave., White Plains, NY 10604. "For creators and producers of graphic and multimedia presentations." The earliest; durable, more mainstream.



graphic: Until The End Of The World

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