Multimedia Computing: Myths And Reality

Take a computer, add a CD ROM drive and a
set of speakers, and you have multimedia. Right? Nothing could be farther from the truth!
According to conventional definition, multimedia is made up of five components: text,
sound, graphics, animation, and video. Like all things conventional, this definition too
has undergone much corruption. Today, multimedia is commonly identified as a CD ROM drive,
(probably) a sound card, and a set of speakers, attached to a computer. By extension, CD
ROMs of all types are classified as multimedia.

Please wait for pixThe real world
of multimedia extends far beyond CD ROMs and speakers. To understand the true implications
of multimedia computing, it is necessary for us to first understand its evolution. But
before that, let us pause for a moment to take a brief look at a very interesting
subject–human communication. Communication, no doubt, is the essence of all our
interactions. Whether it be a formal presentation or just a handshake, we are always
communicating emotions and ideas to others. By nature, communication is multidimensional,
and the more the number of dimensions involved in a communication, the richer it is, and
the more impact it makes. Thus, we use sound, color, action, tone, texture, and a wide
range of emotions in understanding what others, and our environment is communicating to
us, and in our communication with others. Even when confined to media that places severe
limits to the number of dimensions available, we tend to innovate, by adding virtual
dimensions. Thus, with something as bland and unemotional as email, we started adding
emotions to add a new dimension of emotions to bland text! In short, our endeavor has
always been to increase available dimensions of interaction. Be it in making business
presentations or in sending and receiving email, a computer today is a vital tool of
communication. Thus, it may not be too much off the mark to draw a parallel between the
communication process outlined above and computing. At its basest dimension, computing is
a series of interactions between man and machine. In the good old days, we had monochrome
text terminals with keyboards for input. Not much of interaction there! Our understanding
of communication tells us that human endeavor would be to increase the dimensions of this
interaction. Soon we had color monitors, graphical desktops, the mouse, and sound added.
Powerful processors made it possible to have animation and video possible on the computer
desktop. The enormous sizes of media-rich files pioneered the use of large-capacity,
portable storage devices, particularly the CD ROM. It is altogether a different matter
that the large-scale success of the CD ROM has been due to its use for software
distribution. The search for more dimensions of interaction did not end there. The
two-dimensional world of the monitor slowly got converted into a three-dimensional
playground. One of the early applications of 3D has been virtual walkthroughs–the
simulation of 3D space, particularly for CAD and architecture. But the real drivers of 3D
have been games, particularly the aim and shoot genre of games like Doom and Hexen.
Another area where games played a major role is in the development of control devices like
joysticks and game pads. Soon you had paddles, steering wheels, and many more peripherals
that gave a more realistic feel to game play. From this to virtual reality was but a small
step. The data glove and the VR goggle are perhaps the most easily recognizable of virtual
reality tools. The height of multimedia experience today is with immersive virtual reality
systems, wherein the virtual world surrounds you, and you interact with it, as you would
in real life. You open doors in this virtual world, as you would in real life, and you
walk through rooms in the same way. The computing power required for this is as yet
confined to heavy-duty servers, but the day is not too far, when the ubiquitous desktop
would have the processing power to create virtual worlds. And then, like the speakers and
CD ROM drives of today, VR equipment like data gloves and helmets would be part of the
standard ‘multimedia computer’! In fact, they could even replace currently existing
peripherals like the mouse!So much for the hardware. Let us take a look at the software.
When you say multimedia, the user invariably thinks of CD ROMs while the developer’s
thoughts, more or less, turn to MacroMedia’s Director, the big daddy of multimedia
development tools. In fact, the term multimedia is so indelibly tied up with these two
that many otherwise useless pieces of software gain the garb of respectability by being
authored on Director and being put on a CD ROM to be called multimedia. On the flip side,
many shirk away from adding multimedia content to their packages and presentations,
assuming it to be a laborious and highly skilled task, requiring the services of
highly-paid programmers. Nothing could be farther from truth! Today, the driving force
behind multimedia content is neither the skills of the software programmer nor the medium
or the software on which the content is created. The two biggest drivers of multimedia are
games and the Internet. In their endeavor to deliver the latest in excitement to avid
gamers, game and associated hardware developers are for ever tuning their wares, adding
more and more dimensions of interaction between the player and the game. From more and
more realistic rendering of the game environment to tactile feedback on joysticks the list
of improvements is long.But, it is definitely the Internet that has taken multimedia
content development out of the hands of the programmers and put in the hands of the
designer–both the expert and the novice. The millions of personal homepages, alive with
animated graphics, tantalizing music, and even three-dimensional effects and video are
living proof of this simple but stunning fact. Surely, not all of them are accomplished
programmers. Most of them have probably used nothing more than an HTML authoring package
to achieve all this.

Not only that, the Internet has pioneered
many technologies for making multimedia leaner. Streaming audio and video, VRML, and
Quicktime VR. They make it possible to deliver multimedia content from across the globe to
your desktop, using a 28.8 Kbps, or even a 14.4 Kbps modem! All these together have
rewritten the rules of multimedia. Today, your creation is no longer judged by its
programing intricacies or by whether you developed it in Director or in C++. The intricate
effects that an accomplished programmer can create after days of toil with a highly
complex programing environment can easily be duplicated by a novice working with nothing
more than a freely downloaded HTML editor. What has become important in this situation is
the content. And what will separate the wheat from the chaff is the quality of content and
its presentation.

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