Written by David Tebbutt, Mensa 11/89 - scanned


Even people with only a passing interest in computers have probably heard of word processors. They may have heard of spread sheets and databases too. These were the first three major applications of personal computers. Later, much later, came desktop publishing. You may have seen the Apple advertisements on television where the boss is astonished that two employees can produce such professional results on their Macintosh computers in such a short time. `Why can't we do that on our computers?' was the punchline.

Well, things move on. Desktop publishing is still a very viable application, but it has not exactly become a mass market item. The manufacturers need applications which can drive sales of ever more computers. Every so often they come out with a `desktop' something or another, but none have resulted in the mass appeal of a spreadsheet or a database. We've seen hype for desktop engineering, desktop communications and desktop presentations but none of these have yet hit the big time.

Just recently, we've started to hear a new term being bandied around. It's `multi-media'. This one could actually open up substantial new markets and give millions of people a reason to own or want access to a computer. The expression `multi-media' means the coming together of several forms of communication within a computer. We're talking here about text, graphics, video and sound.

The technology underpinning multi-media is primarily that of optical storage devices. As you know from compact disc, it is possible to store an hour or so of digitised sound in a very small space. A computer sees a compact disc as a collection of approximately 600 million characters. This same disc could hold a few seconds of full motion video, but special compression techniques could be applied to pack in more. In fact, one technique can squash up to an hour of video on to one CD. To see the video played back, it is necessary to decompress this information `on the fly'. Clearly, the faster the computer, the better the job it can make of this decompression.

No-one stands a chance of selling `multimedia' as a product. It's not like a wordprocessor or a spread-sheet or a desktop publishing package. With these, the name describes the product. `Multi-media' describes a whole family of products, rather like `motor transport' describes a range of vehicles from pop-pops to pantechnicons.

So why should `multi-media' catch on where so many other new concepts have failed? The answer lies in the fact that big guns like Apple and IBM have cottoned on to this as a massive opportunity. It would transform the learning experience, it can be used to impart huge volumes of information while ensuring very high retention. This makes it useful in both business and education.

No-one pretends to know where the multimedia journey will take us. Nor does anyone know how long it will take to develop the machines of appropriate power and software of appropriate complexity to truly maximise the multi-media opportunities. But, already, multimedia programs and information products are beginning to appear.

Let's take a couple of examples. Are you confused about the situation in the Middle East? I have seen a multi-media publication called The Holy Land. It examines the conflicts in this region from as many points of view as possible. How do you resolve the problem of the Jewish child who believes that `God gave us this land' and the Lebanese child who sees his family being moved out of property that has belonged to them for generations? With such a multimedia document, you can see video sequences and listen to the children speaking. You can study maps of the region, or read textual material on the screen. You can pick from graphical and textual menus, the information of interest to you in the sequence you choose. This personalised form of information gathering, which requires your active involvement, is a most powerful learning tool.

I have also seen some multi-media systems which teach you about great composers and their works. A particularly good one was about Mozart and the Magic Flute. You could see the score, read the background notes and hear the music being played. At one point we wanted to learn more about the plagal or `Amen' cadence. A button click later, we were listening to a narrative describing the sequence of notes, seeing them on the screen and listening to them being played. It really was just like being in a music lesson back at school. The difference was that we could have each chosen our own route through the information. The music, the narrative and the other information was instantly available at all times. And, unlike school, you can repeat the lessons over and over again.

As time goes by, a big discussion will rage over whether multi-media should be a synchronous or an asynchronous process. The debate will be between those who see multimedia as another new publishing opportunity and those who see it as a personal product. Personal users will want to create and play back their multi-media documents on their own equipment. This is the synchronous approach. It could be likened to recording and playing back your own music on a domestic tape recorder.

The asynchronous approach is more akin to the music recording studio where it can take days to lay down a track, but only minutes to listen to it when it is finally published. This requires huge investments of time and money but, it has to be said, the end results are very professional. I expect that people will buy playing equipment purely for this purpose. This means the price will have to be quite low. In America, they are talking of a $1,000 price point. I think the asynchronous/synchronous debate is simply an excuse for the main players to keep multi-media in the news. I believe that both approaches are needed.

It's interesting though, that the main protagonist for the asynchronous approach is IBM, while the synchronous technology is favoured by Apple. Asynchronous multi-media is for passive users while synchronous is for creative people. Perhaps this is an accurate reflection of how these two companies perceive their customers.