On a PC, on a TV, on a Laptop near You

Article excerpt

People used to be very rude about multimedia. To some, it was a solution looking for a problem, a technology in search of a market or simply a wheeze created by computer companies to sell more kit. But not any more. Today, multimedia is a multibillion-pound industry that is being used in business, education, training, marketing, retailing, entertainment and many other areas.

Multimedia is used for everything from selling kitchens to helping kids to understand how machines work, and from marketing chocolate bars to helping doctors choose the best medical treatment. It's also used by the police in the fight against crime. Even banks and building societies, well known for their technological conservatism, have embraced multimedia.

Part of the problem is that everyone seems to have their own definition of what multimedia is. But the general view is that multimedia mixes the power of a computer with sound, pictures, moving images, text and data. Many multimedia programs are also interactive, or under the control of the user. Multimedia may be delivered to a home or office on a compact disc or via telephone, cable or soon, even satellite. Multimedia can be used on a PC or a TV, or on a kiosk, console or even on a virtual reality system.

One of the most obvious signs of the rise of multimedia has been the recent transformation of the PC into the multimedia PC (although owners of Apple and Acorn computers say their machines have offered multimedia for many years). With the simple addition of a sound card, speakers and CD-Rom drive, today's PC can talk, sing, shout and display moving pictures. Even video, once considered the final frontier for multimedia, is now standard on most computers in the form of software systems like Apple's QuickTime and Microsoft's Video for Windows. Another video standard, MPeg, offers VHS-quality video and will probably be a standard feature on many new home PCs launched this Christmas.

For many people, CD-Roms are multimedia. There are now more than 13,000 CD-Rom titles, and many of them offer speech, music, animated pictures and other manifestations of the new technology. Prices have fallen so much that some titles are even cheaper than their paper-based versions. More encyclopaedias are now sold on CD-Rom than in book form. And CD-Rom looks set to grow as a new generation of discs, called DVD-Rom, arrives within the next two years. The new discs will offer at least nine times more capacity than today's CD-Roms, allowing multimedia developers to be more creative and use more data-greedy features such as video, sound and photographic images.

What is more, the line between CD-Rom and online systems like the Internet are blurring. Companies such as Microsoft and OmniMedia market hybrid CD-Roms, discs that also contain Web browser software. Anyone with a PC and modem can click on the software and be taken to a Web site to get updated information about the CD-Rom.

By the end of the year, virtually every school in Britain will have at least one CD-Rom drive. Pupils are using CD-Rom encyclopaedias that can bring information to life in a way that no ordinary book can. Instead of simply reading about say, the workings of a nuclear reactor, students can now see animated sequences of the reactor's operations on a PC screen. And a whole new generation of easy-to-use multimedia authoring systems, which require no programming skills, are allowing even primary school children to create their own multimedia presentations on a computer.

In the games market, systems such as Sony's Play Station and Sega's Saturn offer multimedia games featuring video, arcade-style animations and CD- quality sound. Saturn can even play Video CD discs when fitted with a plug-in cartridge. Video CD titles store over an hour of MPeg video, and are used for films and music videos. Another home entertainment system, Philips' CD-i (for interactive), plugs into an ordinary TV and is operated by a remote control handset. …