Communicating in Parallel

Multimedia is poised on the edge of a major revolution as fiber brings high bandwidth to the access network.

Multimedia. Though the term is often bandied about, the definition, for many, is vague. Robert Aston, president of Market Vision (Santa Cruz, CA) and coauthor with Joyce Schwartz of Multimedia: Gateway to the Next Millennium, has followed the evolution of multimedia for more than a decade. According to him, multimedia involves communicating via multiple data types such as text, graphics, video, and audio. The forms must be digital, have a high degree of structure to define what the content is and how it is to be used, and must offer front-end navigability with a consistent computer-human interface that allows the content to be received in many ways per user direction.

Aston classifies multimedia applications into four major categories: dedicated professional, business, educational, and consumer. The dedicated professional category involves content developed for a specific user subset, such as interactive sites for medical doctors and their patients. The business category includes business-to-business e-commerce, publishing applications, and manufacturing support. The education area moves beyond universities and schools to encompass libraries, museums, and distributed learning for corporate education. Finally, the consumer category involves leisure-time applications, such as entertainment, gaming, communications, and learning

In the early 1990s, cable companies were trying to drive people to multimedia through interactive television (ITV). The emergence of the Internet at that time pulled attention away from ITV, but the early Internet offered such limited capabilities that it hampered the delivery of multimedia. «The very first Internet was not a multimedia environment,» says Aston, noting that most multimedia was delivered via CD-ROMs and floppy disks. The emergence of the World Wide Web with Java and Java Script brought true multimedia to the Internet, although bandwidth limitation remains a major issue.

«The next stage, of course, is broadband,» Aston says. «That delivery mechanism will provide a broad enough array of applications with enough bandwidth to deliver content using video, animation, and all of the multimedia technology that we can bring to bear.» Unified messaging—a platform combining fax, e-mail, and voice—will be an early application. «The ultimate multimedia mail right now is the delivery of animation and video. We saw the first emergence with the interactive greeting cards. You can go to a site, create a card and send it to someone, and it will play an animation.» Such cards often include audio as well as text and graphics.

«We’re now up to the beginning of another phase in this whole process—the advent of broadband. Broadband is the limiting factor. When will we have the platform to support the applications? My guess is around the years 2004 and 2005. In the interim, the real task is to train people how to be comfortable with multimedia.»

Indeed, Aston sees the issue of consumer habits to be as much of a block to multimedia as current bandwidth limitations in the access network. «It will take some major changes—not only in the infrastructure, but also in the behavior of people,» he says, emphasizing the need for consumers to get comfortable navigating through menus similar to those currently available on some cable systems. «Consumers need to understand why they should take the time [to use multimedia].» Certain applications, such as the aforementioned medical information delivery, will help compel people to use multimedia and increase their comfort level. Aston says e-mail applications and web browsers are training people to navigate the types of menus required. «In a few years, people will be more comfortable with interactivity and will use it for a variety of things. The next big wave, whether people like it or not, will be interactive advertising.»

As to what the future holds, Aston says the technologists are making progress. «We’re now catching up with more sophisticated tools for the management of content and the delivery of content,» he says. «We’re on the verge of breaking through this next bandwidth barrier. We’re on the edge of a major revolution in multimedia.»

(By Kristin Lewotsky, OEMagazine, 2001, Jule)

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