Make way for multimedia: move over Mac and Amiga - multimedia has come to the PC. (includes related article on Windows 3.0)
by David English
How would you like to have live video playing in a window on your PC screen? Or a high-fidelity voice speaking from your favorite program? Or 600 megabytes of information on a slender five-inch disc that can simultaneously play back text, graphics, video, animation, recorded sounds, and synthesized music? That's the promise of a powerful set of extensions to Windows 3.0 to be released this year.
To run Multimedia Windows, you'll need at least a 286 10-MHz system with VGA graphics, 2MB of RAM, a 30MB hard drive, and a 1.44MB 3 1/2-inch floppy drive. You'll also need a CD-ROM player with a speedy 150K-per-second transfer rate and a sound card that can handle both multichannel MIDI data and 8-bit audio. The sound card will not only be able to play synthesized music and electronic sound effects, but also spoken voice, recorded music, and real-life sound effects.
Only a few of today's CD-ROM players are fast enough to meet the 150K requirement. These include models from Toshiba, Sony, and Hitachi--but more are on the way. The Sound Blaster from Creative Labs currently meets all the sound card requirements--with the exception of an onboard mixer (this lets your software control the various sound levels). Future versions of the Sound Blaster will include the mixer. Fully compliant sound cards from other companies are also in the works, including a new high-quality sound card from MediaVision.
Specially priced upgrade kits designed to bring present PC owners up to speed will be available from Headlands Technology, MediaVision, and Creative Labs. These kits will include a CD-ROM player, a sound card, and Microsoft's multimedia extensions to Windows. Expect these kits to retail for $900-$1,500.
To deliver complete multimedia hardware systems for new buyers, Microsoft has lined up some of the biggest names in the industry, including Tandy, NEC, AT & T, Zenith, CompuAdd, Olivetti, and Fujitsu. These companies sold over 25 percent of the PC shipped in 1990 and represent a substantial commitment to a platform with no existing software. IBM will also support the new multimedia extensions through its OS/2.
Where's the Beef?
To drum up support for Multimedia Windows, Microsoft sponsored a two-day Multimedia Developers Conference last November. The goal was to convince software developers to create enough applications to make Multimedia Windows a success. One Microsoft representative went so far as to tell the developers they had the power to embarrass a lot of big companies: "If you want to make these companies look stupid, don't write any multimedia programs."
What will the new applications look like? At the conference, Microsoft gave developers a sneak preview of some of the programs that will be released at the same time as Multimedia Windows, including multimedia versions of Asymetrix's ToolBook, Authorware's Author ware Professional, Owl International's Guide, AimTech's Iconauthor, Attica Cybermetrics' MediaBase, and Access Technology's Windowcraft. These are authoring programs that will allow nonprogrammers to create multimedia presentations and stand-alone multimedia programs. All these programs support CD-ROM players and sampled sounds. Most of these programs also support MIDI synthesizers, full-motion video in a window, and playback of animation files.
Initially, there will be two ways to bring animation files over to Windows. MacroMind showed a program that plays MacroMind Director files on the PC (letting you bring complete multimedia files from the Macintosh over to Windows). Autodesk announced a similar program that plays Autodesk Animator files in Windows. Both programs can be linked to other Windows applications. For example, you could write a script in ToolBook that calls an animation file and runs it in a window in the upper left corner of the screen.
Microsoft showed two of its own multimedia programs, WinDoc and an unnamed talking-heads program. WinDoc is yet another multimedia authoring program, but one optimized for fast text searches on CD-ROM. It can also function as an index-and-search engine for other Windows programs.
The talking-heads program is still in early development. It was used in the opening presentation of the conference to show off the power of Multimedia Windows. This program can stream video directly off a CD-ROM disc with no flicker. In the opening presentation, a man's head appeared in a small window on the computer screen and spoke to the audience. Combined with animation and sound effects, it was truly an impressive sight.
I learned after the presentation that Microsoft had used a PS/1 (a 286 running at 10 MHz) and a Sound Blaster--the minimum required for a Multimedia Windows system--to perform the presentation. Eric Ledoux, technical lead for Multimedia Systems Tools at Microsoft, said that even at full screen on a 286 there would be very little flicker. While few individuals can afford the equipment to transfer their own full-motion videos to CD-ROM discs, this program does show the potential for software developers to include full-motion video in their CD-ROM products.
Will It Fly?
Will multimedia succeed on the PC? To answer this question, you have to break the potential audience into several groups. For internal use in corporations and other organizations, where money and standards are less of a problem, multimedia should do well almost immediately. Training presentations and in-store kiosks could use the new animation and sound capabilities to make dry information more entertaining. Corporations will also be attracted to the possibilities of voice-annotated mail. Companies that need CD-ROM discs for a hundred or more sites will find it cost effective to create their own discs. Already you can buy a machine for about $30,000 that can produce CD-ROMs for $50 each.
School systems will also be able to spread their costs over many users. Animation, voice, and a huge database of information will make educational programs more exciting for students. The current version of Compton's Multimedia Encyclopedia on CD-ROM points the way: Click on a picture of Mozart, and you hear an example of his music. Click on a picture of Martin Luther King, and you hear the "I have a dream" speech. With the encyclopedia's SmartTrieve search engine, you can ask, "Why is the sky blue?" and receive a list of articles that contain both words, sky and blue. Look for similar knowledge-based CD-ROM products to be released throughout the year.
How about the home market? Gregg Riker, director of development for Microsoft's Multimedia Systems Group, says, "In the long run, it's the home market that we're excited about." But will home-computer users be willing to pay $900-$1,500, plus another $895 for the software, just to run a multimedia encyclopedia? Until there are enough titles and prices fall for CD-ROM players and sound cards, most buyers will take a wait-and-see attitude. Microsoft hopes this conference will get the ball rolling on software and that developers will jump on board early.
What will multimedia software for the home look like? It's too early to know for sure, but CD-ROM titles such as Sierra's Mixed-Up Mother Goose, Activision's the Manhole and Cosmic Osmo, and Britannica Software's Comption's Multimedia Encyclopedia indicate that we'll see high-quality graphics, extensive use of spoken voice, and an interface that's easy to use and interactive. Look for record-music packages that combine CD-audio tracks with megabytes of background information on CD-ROM, similar to Mozart's Magic Flute from Warner Audio Notes and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony from The Voyager Company. With Windows' ability to stream video from a CD-ROM disc, Max Headroom might even make a comeback.
Even if CD-ROM is slow to catch on in the home market, Microsoft's multimedia specifications have finally set a viable sound-board standard for the PC. Expect more games and applications to support the real-sound capabilities of the Sound Blaster and future Windows-compatible sound cards. Adding MIDI support to Windows (including a built-in sequencer) will help the growing market for Windows-based MIDI software.
While, at this point, it looks as if multimedia on the PC is still a ways off, don't be surprised if it takes hold in a hurry. Once we see $300-$400 CD-ROM players and 20-30 solid titles, multimedia could establish a momentum all its own. Five years from now, we may be talking about the 1990 Microsoft Multimedia Developers Conference as the place where PCs came of age--where static graphics and simple beeps were replaced by full-motion animation and real sounds. I can hardly wait.