The Bridge in Between

Multimedia is great, but how come people did not
talk about it all these years? Why do people talk of multimedia as a ‘nineties
technology’? Why are Internet/World Wide Web and multimedia showing up ‘hand-in-glove’
most of the time? Has multimedia anything to do with Graphical User Interfaces (GUI)? Why
is the Wintelco (Microsoft through Windows, Intel through MMX enabled Pentium, and Cisco
through its routers to multimedia networking) combination putting their bets on
multimedia?

The answer to many of these questions lies
in the unfolding of many of the key technologies, their maturity, and standardization.
These enabling technologies bridge the gap between end-users and the exciting multimedia
computers. We will briefly provide a perspective view on some of the technologies.

While multimedia is exciting, it is
demanding too. The complex data types that multimedia can handle-text, graphics, audio,
video, and animation are easy to store, transmit, and manipulate today, yet difficult to
abstract.

The file sizes associated with multimedia
elements are significantly large. A rough account of the size increase can be gauged by
the fact that a page of type text will be 1000 times small compared to a scanned image of
the same size.

An audio file of few hours will be thousand
times larger than a page of scanned image. A digital video file of couple of hours, yet
again, will be 1000 times larger than an audio file of similar size.

Naturally, such
‘thousands-of-folds-of-size-increase’ pose tremendous challenges to processor performance,
storage devices, network speed, graphics performance, video display devices, and
programming tools such as operating systems, compilers, database management systems, and
interfaces.

It is a tribute to the IT professionals
that their research has unleashed a plethora of technologies that literally school-going
children (including the handicapped children) can handle multimedia today. Isn’t it
amazing?

Probably the technology that ‘delivered’
multimedia is the Compact Discs (CDs). With a ‘large’ storage capacity of 650 MB, an
inexpensive production process that could drive costs to sub-dollar levels and the
‘read-only’ feature enabling less risk of the end-user ‘messing up’ the content, CD ROM
was the first true ‘enabler’ of multimedia. Playing second fiddle to its audio counterpart
in mid eighties, CD ROM has truly evolved over the years from its humble beginning.

Starting with speeds of 360 KB/Sec of data
transfer, CD ROM technology has moved to 2X, 4X, 8X, 12X, 16X and the recent 24X CD
Drives, transferring data as many times fast as the number before the X! The early CDs
were great for graphics, particularly the Photo CDs and the multi-session CDs pioneered by
Kodak. With the arrival of high-speed CDs it was easy to pack a lot of audio (and tons of
‘real audio’) on a CD.

Packing video into CD has always been a
problem, though Video CDs have been around for a while now. The early generation CD ROMs
needed SCSI controller pushing up the costs. The arrival of CD ROM drives with IDE support
made it so affordable for desktop computers pushing the price to $ 100 range. Today, one
cannot think of multimedia without CD ROMsw. The Laser Disc that initially looked
promising took a backseat in the past few years.

1997 was indeed a watershed year with the
DVD drives appearing in the market at a very affordable price. With a capacity of several
gigabytes, today’s DVD can provide ‘full motion’ MPEG quality video running into hours at
less than $ 450 for the drive and less than $ 20 for the media. An Indian movie on DVD
will be here shortly-globalization indeed for India!

The other pioneering development that
helped initial development in multimedia was the arrival of Microsoft Windows 3.x. Apple
Computers was a true visionary in multimedia with its legendary GUI, sound support,
QuickTime video, QuickTake camera etc. It was still a niche market. The Media Player of
Microsoft Windows 3.x coupled with the marketing muscle power of Microsoft took multimedia
to mainstream computing.

The introduction of Object Linking &
Embedding (OLE) provided a seamless way to integrate multimedia into every desktop
application-word processors, spreadsheets, databases, and presentation software. Microsoft
PowerPoint needs a special mention in this category. Microsoft took multimedia support to
new heights through its legendary Windows 95.

Engineering Workstations from Sun, HP, and
IBM always had phenomenal graphics performance. Multimedia for masses, pioneered by Wintel
(Microsoft Windows and Intel x86 processors), had to wait until 1996 to see affordable,
yet Advanced Graphics Processors (AGP) to get realistic graphics on their workstations. It
had to wait for the low-cost, high-performance Pentium processor, MMX technology and
low-cost, high-performance Digital Signal Processors (DSP) to support multimedia at the
hardware level and affordable high-resolution, large-screen monitors.

1997 will once again go in history as
watershed year, thanks to Intel MMX and HP’s graphics technology. The recent developments
in 3D modeling, high-speed rendering, and photo-realistic animation have made morphing,
virtual reality 3D tours so common today. Even Indian advertisements like Kawasaki Bajaj,
Tamil movies, such as ‘Avvai Shanmugi’, use morphing extensively. 3D tours of the upcoming
real-estate projects are not uncommon in Bangalore.

The killer application of multimedia is
truly the graphical interface to the Internet/WWW provided by Mosaic in 1993. Quickly
followed by Netscape Navigator and the recent Internet Explorer from Microsoft, browsers
have completely changed the way users look at multimedia. In fact, today any application
designer must take into account the fact that multimedia is taken for granted by the
end-user. It is no longer an ‘add-on’.

The Web has inspired a string of multimedia
technologies in the recent years. With a view to optimize network performance, CompuServe
pioneered the development of graphics file format, GIF that has become the de facto
standard for graphics files on the Net.

This, in turn, led to a number of standard
file formats for every type of multimedia-Joint Photography Expert Group (JPEG) for
high-quality graphics, WAV from Microsoft and RealAudio from RealAudio for sound files,
Motion Picture Expert Group (MPEG), standard AVI from Microsoft, QuickTime from Apple
(both for Apple and Windows), Special file formats for Animation (AutoDesk FLI/FLC),
Silicon Graphics initiated standard for Virtual Reality (VRML), Real audio & Real
video files, Macromedia Digital Movie files MOV etc.

A related development is the technology of
‘plug-in’ for multimedia that permits users to ‘seamlessly’ view multimedia in their Web
pages. As we approach the new millennium, more fundamental technology developments are
changing the very boundary of multimedia. The excitement of multimedia on the screen had
to be captured ‘off-line’ too. Inkjet printers, color laser printers are changing the way
people traditionally viewed printers as ‘peripheral’ to computing.

Suddenly printers have turned multimedia!
Yet they are so affordable, both in terms of initial investment and running costs. The
resolutions being talked about are 2400 dpi, leaps and bounds more than 160 (dots per
inch) dpi a couple of years back. Another peripheral, scanners have seen phenomenal
developments too. Scanner resolutions have increased from 150 dpi to 2400 dpi.

Today’s scanners scan colors so well and so
many of them, ‘multiples of millions’ is a default choice in most HP Scanners! What pushes
many of them into back-bench is the evolution of digital camera. Digital camera replaces
photo-chemistry based photography into opto-electronics based digital photography. The
mess of silver iodide and films are gone. Today’s digital cameras are so convenient, that
you ‘point and shoot’ the ‘scene of action’ and store them on a floppy disk of the camera.

At a convenient time, you download the
image onto your PC, view the images, and print them on your PC printer. No need to go to
the Photography shop. In fact, you can send the image as an attachment to your mom and dad
using standard email, thanks to Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension (MIME).

You can edit your images too! You become
not only the photographer, but also an expert who can ‘touch up’ the image, though
digitally. This development threatens the traditional photography industry. By the turn of
the century, IT majors like HP and Canon may be selling more cameras than camera-makers
Kodak and Polaroid! This is true industry shift!

Another major gadget that is likely to be
threatened is the conventional TV, with the onset of a new generation of Information
Appliances. Multimedia enables Interactive TV a possibility today, though costs are not in
its favour as of today. The upcoming High Definition Television (HDTV) is closer to a PC
than to traditional television. With appliances like WebTV entering the market, there is
another shift in industry.

Multimedia is enlarging its scope to
include not just computing but entertainment (camera, TV, tape recorder, telephone, fax
etc.) also, that a truly integrated Information Appliance is emerging.

These developments in technology have
implications in the software front too. The development environments have seen multimedia
influencing the Integrated Development Environment. Use of color to signify different
kinds of errors, use of audio alarms to indicate severe errors are routinely done. Even
wordprocessors use color imaginatively to prompt users about spelling and grammatical
errors.

High-end software such as SAP R/3 use
colors to implement thresholds, warnings and ‘early watch’ alarms to end-users. User
interfaces of most software like email clients use graphics and sound very subtly. At
deeper level, multimedia poses special challenges to compilers, operating systems, and
Database Management Systems (DBMS). Tomorrow’s DBMS software should address the
complexities of very large databases (terabytes) to handle applications like
Video-on-Demand and Digital Library.

Still deeper are issues like
‘Query-by-image-content’. Imagine a police officer using multimedia to help him screen
thousands of images from a multimedia database to locate a possible criminal. Such
applications are relevant even in the Indian context. Voter identity cards would have to
be administered year after year. Since people are likely to move to different places and
even misplace or lose their cards, we need a mechanism to quickly re-issue these cards. It
would call for storing a billion image files. The added complexity of moving selected
images over the network during election times will push us to limits of technology today.
So multimedia database represents an exciting application area.

A common thread among all multimedia
applications is the image editing and image compression. End-users appreciate the
complexity involved in editing text files such as ‘cut and paste’, ‘search and
substitute’, ‘insert and delete’. They have their counterparts in graphics, audio and
video images too. Image editing in video files would translate to ‘special effects’ &
‘post production’, very demanding, and truly ‘high-end’ cinematography applications.

Software tools like Avid Tool, Macromedia
Director represent state-of-the-art technology in this area. Image editing in visual
images would correspond to ‘pre-press’ in print world, once again a very demanding
application. Image compression has evolved considerably over the years. But for the
significant developments in this area, much of contemporary multimedia work would be
impossible.

Casual users may be more familiar with
‘non-lossy’ compression schemes like Huffman coding used to compress program files, the
classic PKWare products (PKzip & PKunzip). Such compression schemes lead to
compression of 50 percent to 300 percent, whereas multimedia area has evolved compression
schemes with compression in the range of up to 100, 200 times! Generally such schemes are
‘lossy compression’ where a few bits of loss of information is permitted.

Multimedia images like photographs, music
and video have sufficient redundancy. Invariably the output of multimedia is processed by
an intelligent human being, who is capable of making out these losses and even ‘make up’
for them. Several innovative schemes in audio and video compression include inter-frame
and intra-frame compression to get superior performance. Many of these developments,
particularly in the last few years have led to breathtaking performance improvements.
Adobe tools such as Persuasion, Publish, Photo-deluxe represent another set of
technology-intensive products.

Tools such as Macromedia Authorware,
Director, Asymetrix Toolbook and Web publishing tools like Microsoft FrontPage, Adobe
Pagemill and Sitemill provide authoring tools for multimedia. These authoring tools are
evolving too. A whole array of authoring tools to suit different user segments, themes,
metaphors etc. are available today.

To conclude, several technology
developments in multimedia area have contributed to its spectacular growth in products and
user acceptance of the products in the marketplace. This being a vast area, I have
outlined only some key issues only in this note.

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