Sight and sound. (multimedia products from Microsoft) (Column)
by David English
Two new products from Microsoft will significantly advance multimedia's two big growth areas-sound and video. I'm working with beta versions of both products, so the details are still sketchy, but both represent a giant leap forward in Windows technology.
The first product is a package that adds AVI (Audio Video Interleaved) technology to Windows. Essentially what you get is the ability to run video movies from software-no additional hardware is needed, other than a standard sound card if you want to hear AVI's synchronized sound.
There are some limitations, however. First, a typical AVI movie runs 15 frames per second (half the usual speed of video), so there's a slight flicker. Second, it generally runs in a window that's 160 pixels wide and 120 pixels high (just one-eighth of a standard 640 x 480 screen). You can make the movie take up the entire screen, but it looks so blocky you'll quickly switch back.
The third limitation-a big one-is the size of the file. Even with the built-in compression, a 30-second AVI movie can take up four or five megabytes on your hard drive. (That isn't a problem with CD-ROM, where a single disc can hold as much as 72 minutes of compressed AVI files.)
The AVI package includes VidEdit, a video editor that lets you load, edit, and save video files, and VidCap, a program that lets you capture full-motion video and audio from videotape, videodisc, or video camera (for this, you'll need a video-capture board, such as Creative Labs' Video Blaster). You also get a CD-ROM filled with AVI movies. The AVI standard currently supports 8-, 16-, and 24-bit graphics and 8- and 16-bit sound.
How well will AVI do? If QuickTime is any indication, it should do well. QuickTime is a similar technology on the Macintosh that has become successful in less than a year. Many Mac applications support QuickTime, including business programs such as Word and Excel (cutandpastemovies directly into your letter or spreadsheet) and children's programs such as Kid Pix and Kid Works 2. AVI already works with any Windows program that supports OLE. Expect widespread application support in 1993.
The second product is the much-rumored sound card from Microsoft, called Windows Sound System. It's a sound card designed specifically for Windows business users-there's no joystick connector, Ad Lib or Sound Blaster game support, external MIDI support, or even a port for a CDROM drive.
On the other hand, Microsoft has provided a comprehensive set of audio utilities-the majority of which work only with this sound card. These new utilities make it easy for just about anyone to add high-quality sound to Windows.
Most dramatically, Windows Sound System features built-in voice recognition through a new Windows utility called Voice Pilot. It ships with menu-command vocabularies for 16 major Windows applications, including 11 of Microsoft's own programs (Word, Excel, Power-Point, Mail, Write, and so on), as well as Aldus PageMaker 4.0, Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows 1.0, Micrografx Designer 3.1, Norton Desktop for Windows 2.0, and WordPerfect for Windows 5.1. You can change, delete, or retrain any of the existing vocabularies, or create new ones for other applications. Typical commands might be Open, Save, Exit, Up, Down, Move, and Check Box.
The Sound System utilities also include ProofReader, which lets you check your Excel or 1-2-3 for Windows spreadsheets with a talking proofreader; Quick Recorder, which lets you record, edit, and mix your own sounds (a microphone and set of headphones are included in the package); and Sound Finder, a combination sound-file browser, converter, and librarian.
As if that weren't enough, you also get SoundScapes, an audio-based screen saver; Music Box, which lets you listen to audio CDs on your CD-ROM drive; and a newly revised Sound option for your Windows Control Panel that lets you assign sounds to various system events (a generous selection of sounds is included).
It looks like a winning audio package for business and will be priced competitively at $289. The card allows 16-bit sampling, so you can even record CD-quality sound if you have a fast processor and enough room on your hard drive to hold the resulting file.
Both the AVI and sound card packages should be available by the time you read this. Once again, it's Microsoft that's pushing the envelope for multimedia on the PC.