Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 139 / APRIL 1992 / PAGE S8

How to get started with Windows' multimedia extensions. (includes related article) (Compute's Getting Started with Multimedia)
by Lamont Wood

If you've just now gotten used to the advantages that Windows can give your PC, well, stay tuned. Because behind the new world of Windows, there's a new-new world of multimedia.

Point and shoot menus? What you see is what you get? Color graphics? Kid stuff! How about on-screen animation with voice-over narration and musical accompaniment?

Hard as it may be to believe, all these things are possible, even routine, with Windows with Multimedia on a fairly ordinary PC.

Likewise, the creation of multimedia presentations is also nowadays not only possible, but routine, for end users.

It's a revolution you can join. There is, of course, a price attached.

I Want My MPC

Windows with Multimedia runs on multimedia PCs, called MPC machines, that are ordinary PCs or clones with four important features. They're fairly fast (the latest specification calls for a 386SX machine), they have CD-ROMs, they have sound cards that meet the Windows with Multimedia specifications, and they use VGA graphics with at least 16 colors (256 colors are preferred). They also run Windows, implying a mouse, at least two megabytes of RAM, and a hard disk.

Hardware that meets the specs can be spotted by the presence of the distinctive MPC logo. MPC CD-ROM drives must be able to appear to the system as slow but huge (about 650 megabytes) read-only hard disks, and must also be able to play audio CDs through a speaker jack in the front of the unit. Sound boards must support MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) as well as CD Audio (high fidelity with massive data files) and Waveform (lower fidelity and with smaller files) digitized sound formats. (MIDI is used for music, while CD Audio and Waveform are used for voice.) You'll also need a speaker of some kind to attach to the sound board--a PC's internal speaker is too rudimentary to play music.

As for the software, at this point you can't walk into a store and buy Windows with Multimedia (although some of the extensions will be included with Windows 3.1 when it comes out). Instead, you get the extensions by buying an MPC machine with Windows installed from any of the several vendors that offer them, or by getting the extensions with multimedia add-on hardware (a sound board and a CD-ROM drive, bought together or separately) from any of several vendors. You also can get them by purchasing a $495 Microsoft Multimedia Development Kit (MDK). The latter also contains software tools of interest to pros who program in C and already have the Microsoft Windows Software Development Kit (SDK).

The multimedia extensions take up about three megabytes on a hard disk, mostly with device drivers and DLLs (dynamic link libraries, the plug-in software modules that Windows uses internally). In terms of what the user sees, there are five new program icons, mostly in the Accessories Group: Media Player, Sound Recorder, Music Box, Alarm Clock, and HyperGuide. (Vendors of upgrade kits may supply additional utilities specific to their hardware.)

Media Player lets you listen to sound recordings and watch animations writte in the standard Windows with Multimedia format: WAV for digital sound, MID for MIDI files, and MMM for animations.

Sound Recorder lets you do simple editing and mixing of Waveform files, and also attach a microphone to your sound board and make recordings. It can handle recordings 60 seconds long.

Music Box lets you play audio CDs through your CD-ROM drive. Alarm Clock is similar to the standard Windows clock, except it can produce alarms and quater-hour tones using the sound board. (You can choose which sounds to use, including gongs, bells, wood blocks, and even someone babbling gibberish.) HyperGuide is an online user manual that covers Windows as well as the multimedia extensions, and even experienced Windows users are likely to learn something from it.

Thing You Can Do

Of course, simply running Media Player to watch pre-cooked animation samples isn't a good enough reason to spend the $600-$1200 it takes to upgrade to Windows with Multimedia. (Although running animated encyclopedia entries from the Microsoft BookshelfCD-ROM is an experience not to be missed.) The promise of multimedia lies in adding the extra dimensions of sight and sound by your applications. Instead of a sterile "Drive Not Ready" error message in a setup program, you could have a voice tell the user that the needed disk hasn't been and sound to your applications. Instead of a sterile "Drive Not Ready" error message in a setup program, you could have a voice tell the user that the needed disk hasn't been inserted yet, accompanied by an animation showing where Drive A: is located and how to insert the disk.

This assumes that you're writing applications in Windows--formerly a daunting task even for professional programmers. Fortunately, the last year has seen several authoring tools arrive on the market that relieve the programmer of the details involved in Windows event handling. Lately, multimedia versions have begun to appear.

For instance, there's the $695 Multimedia ToolBook from Asymetrix Corp. Based on ToolBook 1.5, it lets you play sounds and animation from within ToolBook applications. As with the standard ToolBook (and most other Windows end-user programming environments), you create onscreen objects--text fields, graphic figures, mouse buttons, and so on--and write scripts (short programs) to handle the events that might concern that object. The list of possible Windows events is a long one--an event can be clicking the mouse pointer on an object, passing the mouse cursor into or out of an object, any change in the contents of an object, receiving a message from another object, and so on. The scripts aren't written in C, but in the more approachable OpenScript, ToolBook's programming language. OpenScript's syntax is close enough to English to be self-commenting. You can say things like "get the text of field YTD and put it in the text of field Total."

Multimedia ToolBook has additional Open Script commands that deal with multimedia device drivers, mostly by linking to the Windows with Multimedia DLLs. Fortunately, you don't have to learn the nuts and bolts of how to do this--Multimedia ToolBook includes a large selection of widgets that you can copy and paste from demo programs into your own. (When you copy an object, its script is copied with it.) These widgets supply all the controls you need for a particular multimedia driver, and are laid out like the control panel of a stereo or VCR. The animation widget, for instance, gives you controls for load, rewind, play, pause, fast forward, step, restart, play from, and unload.

Having copied the widget into your application, you can discard the controls you don't need and hide the ones you don't want the user to have access to--or just fill in the aliases with the names of the files you want to use and only use the load and play functions.

Once you've written your multimedia application, you then need multimedia material to run within it. You can make your own sound recordings with a microphone and the Sound Recorder utility. Disks of sound effects in MPC format also are available.

You can create animations in the MMM format with Autodesk Animator, Gold Disk's Animation Works Interactive, and the Macintosh-based MacroMind Director.