Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 131 / JULY 1991 / PAGE 76

When it comes to language, it's all squishy tech. (multimedia hardware, software) (column)
by David English

I recently attended a seminar on the future of computing at a software conference, and no one on the panel was willing to define the term multimedia. As with other squishy phrases (user-friendly, ergonomically designed, all natural), most of us have a general idea of what we're talking about when we use the terms--but don't ask us to be too precise. When the phrase desktop publishing was introduced in 1984, it was squishy. But as actual products flooded the market, we were able to separate the practical uses from the industry hype.

In the case of multimedia, the confusion is compounded by the fact that it isn't a market or a single application, but a group of six related technologies that have become affordable at the same time.

Three of these six technologies are extensions of past PC advances--high-resolution graphics (VGA or better), an affordable device for realistic sound (the Sound Blaster and similar sound cards), and a standard graphical user interface (Windows 3.0). The three other technologies are relatively new to the PC world--faster and less expensive CD-ROM players, full-motion video, and sophisticated, yet easy-to-use, authoring systems for multimedia applications.

Joined together, these six technologies form the foundation for what we know as multimedia. You don't even need all six to qualify--just about any combination of three or more will do. Let's take a brief look at these technologies and see how each has evolved.

Over the last few years. VGA has become the de facto video-card standard, especially its two high-resolution modes--320 X 200 with 256 colors, and 640 X 480 with 16 colors. In addition, Windows makes it easy for software companies to support even higher-resolution modes. A card manufacturer can write a single driver that will work with any present or future Windoews program. This allows multimedia developers to use photographic-quality images in their applications and maintain a high degree of compatibility over the various high-resolution modes. We've come a long way on our journey from four-color CGA to the 16.7 million colors of the new 24-bit cards.

Sound has undergone an equally dramatic transformation. While many programs still rely on simple PC beeps, Microsoft has established a sound-card standard with Multimedia Windows, which allows any Windows application to play real sounds through your PC. As with video cards, sound-card manufacturers need to write only one driver in order to support all Windows programs, and software developers only have to deal with a single sound-card standard.

All of these high-resolution images and real sounds take up a lot of disk space--too much even for a hard drive. Enter CD-ROM, which can store as much as 650 megabytes on a disc. While the current crop of CD-ROM players are faster than ever, Microsoft has set an even higher standard (150K per second) for Multimedia Windows. These units are able to maintain their higher speeds by using a buffer to hold frequently real information. A year ago, CD-ROM players were $800-$1,000. Today, you can buy them for as little as $400.

The main reason Microsoft insisted that CD-ROM players be so fast is full-motion video. With a speedy CD-ROM player, a PC can spool images off of a CD-ROM disc fast enough to display a video sequence in a small window without any flicker (or a video in a full-screen window with only a little flicker). A multimedia program could display a person in a small window explaining the action in another window. As long as the windows aren't too large, a 150K per second CD-ROM player can handle them. All-taking, all-moving pictures (and animation) may soon be appearing on a PC near you.

Multimedia applications are only as good as the development tools that create them. Fortunately, we're seeing a bumper crop of reasonably priced authoring systems (most under Windows) that are both powerful and easy to use. The majority of these programs use the HyperCard model, allowing you to associate visual objects with programming code and literally move those objects into lace with your mouse.

At this time, it looks as though the common platform for all of these technologies will be Multimedia Windows. With Multimedia Windows, you can link various applications together. For example, you could have one program grab an animation from a CD-ROM disc so that a second program could use it in a multimedia presentation. At the same time, a third program could grab the CD-ROM's MIDI data so that a fourth program (in this case, MIDI sequence program) could feed the musical data to a sound card and a MIDI synthesizer.

Because Multimedia Windows has the necessary programming hooks and standards for these technologies, it will ultimately be the means for making multimedia less squishy. Look for a steady stream of products over the next twelve months that will define what multimedia is and what it will become in the future.