Multimedia is an evolution of technology as well as a convergence which brings together hardware and software. It has been called digital fusion - the merger of digital technologies based on the use of computers. The technologies that are converging are computing, television, printing and telecommunications. Bringing them together results in the whole having greater impact than each individual part and is one of the industry's most significant developments. The convergence of digital technologies and their use will impact the future of teleconferencing, distance learning and business.

In 1950, Douglas Englebart was one of the few people in the world who thought computers could or should display information on screens. That idea swept him into the mainstream of computer design and opened the door to virtual reality (Rheingold, 1991, p 75). Englebart felt that if we could find ways to use audiovisual media to match human perceptual and cognitive capabilities with computers' representational and computational capabilities, humans would be able to increase the power of our most important innate tools for dealing with the world - our ability to perceive, think, analyze, reason, and communicate (p. 73).

Desk-Top Training: Desk-top training or "just in-time training" is evolving out of the interest in multimedia as the convergence of technologies continues. The end result of the convergence which brings together hardware and software will be training received at the individual's desktop. The term "just-in-time" training implies that much of the training in the future will not occur until the employee needs the information. In the desktop environment, the employee will be able to retrieve the information to complete a current task.

This ability will be harnessed through the merger of digital technologies based on the use of computers. The technologies that are converging are computing, television, printing and telecommunications. Bringing them together results in the whole having greater impact than each individual part and is one of the industry's most significant developments. The convergence of digital technologies and their use will impact the future of teleconferencing, distance learning, and business.

By joining TV and computers, the best aspects of each technology are combined. The result is a powerful communications and information system that joins TV's ability to introduce and highlight a subject with the computer's ability to provide in-depth information tailored to immediate needs. The computer changes existing media by helping one find, store, search, and re-use many kinds of information. Interactivity is the term to describe this ability to control what is happening. Two-way communications have the highest level of interactivity, whether the communication is with a person or with a machine.

The recently introduced AT&T Videophone has given even more credibility to the future of just-in-time training. Compressed Labs, Inc. is introducing a product called Cameo. It is essentially a video phone which operates in a computer environment. Through a small camera mounted on the computer screen, a video picture of the operator is taken and compressed through a small codec. The video motion picture is sent to the person who is called who has the same equipment and a video picture of that person is transmitted back. The video picture appears in a small window on the computer screen. Computer files can be exchanged and viewed during the video conversation. The first Cameo product is Macintosh based but an IBM version is expected to be released in several months.

A fiber optic infrastructure throughout the U.S. is one of the final enabling technologies that will link learners, instructors and access to information. However, before a national system is in place, sophisticated systems will be in place in companies linking training technologies with individual learners at their desktop.

Multimedia systems are those that are able to control some or all of the tasks associated with creation, development, production, and post production via a single easy-to-use universal graphic console. Multimedia will make desktop video as significant in the '90s as the '80s desktop publishing.

At its most basic level, multimedia involves the human senses - especially sight and hearing, and give users a sense of interactive control over the computer. Programs include realistic graphics, animation, movement, music, sound, images, text, and digitized realistic voice. At its most sophisticated level, it is the beginning of the use of virtual reality (VR) the revolutionary interactive technology that creates the completely convincing illusion that one is immersed in a computer generated artificial world.

Virtual Reality: VR technology resembles and is partially derived from flight simulators. VR is loosely defined as putting users into a computer-generated environment, rather than merely reacting to images on a screen. Full "immersion" VR can include a helmet that senses head movement and changes the view seen through small TV screens mounted in front of each eye along with gloves that allow users to touch objects in the virtual world. VR has left the hands of philosophers and engineers and has the potential to transform business and society.

For years, people have been looking forward to personal computers that could combine text, graphics, animation, sound, music, voice, and video in education, training and business programs. Some computers and some programs used several media, but very few could handle all. While "just-in-time training" enabled by multimedia and digital telecommunications has been talked about for several years, the reality is that microprocessors aren't yet powerful enough to generate live-action video images that lure adults.

Emerging Standards: Storing the video signal is a problem as it takes a 300 megabyte hard disk to store just 10 seconds of digital video. Compression is the answer to storage problems. Future digital-video products will offer compression ratios of 50:1 to 200:1. JPEG (Joint Photographic Expert Group) is an industry standard for still-image compression that is moving into full-motion video. MPEG (Moving Pictures Experts Group) has a three-part compression standard for professional and consumer applications - digital video, digital audio and systems compression. MPEG compression compresses similar frames of video, tracks elements which change between frames and discards the redundancies. This allows full-motion video to be sent at DC-ROM data rates - around 160K per second.

A multimedia personal computer (MPC) standard describes a PC that can run Microsoft's Windows efficiently because the system software beneath multimedia would be "Windows with Multimedia Extension." The specification calls for added audio and CD-ROM hardware).

Each form of media presents information differently and motivates its use. Printed materials encourage scanning, reading as much as is necessary, then making a decision to learn more or go on. Television has been described as a passive medium because it does not encourage scanning, analysis, action, or making a decision to move on; instead it encourages the user to watch the entire piece by involving higher levels of emotional and sensory stimulation. Computers tend to present focused information through words, spreadsheets, databases or other kinds of formats. The purpose of multimedia is to combine all of these so that the benefits of each can be used in a desktop environment.

Hypermedia: is software that allows the user to interactively manipulate information in a variety of formats - text, images, animation, graphics, sounds, digitized voice, and video. Together, it is called multimedia which can branch to a motion video presentation within a window on the screen, to text, or any combination including a live video telephone connection, perhaps with a content expert. Interactive documents represent a shift in computer use because it becomes the delivery platform. An interactive document requires the user's participation or it stops. A hypermedia document can present an overview with sensory and emotional information to involve the user (like television), encourage text scanning, analysis, action, or move on to new material (like print), or let the user re-use parts and add others to create new documents and communicate with others (like a computer). These capabilities lend themselves to a four-layer structure: the audiovisual surface, an information navigation system, information content, and creative tools.

Control: When people watch children play electronic games and see the concentration and total motor involvement, they wonder why the game isn't math, "They've missed the point" says Nicholas P. Negroponte, director of the Media Laboratory at MIT. "You need to realize the key ingredient is control and not the sound and electronic fireworks. Everyone likes control. The computer is the medium that allows that control (TechTrends, 1988)."

The Media Lab was formed in 1984 based on Negroponte's vision that all communication technologies were going through a joint metamorphosis which could only be understood properly if treated as a single subject, and only advanced properly if treated as a single craft. He has kept the efforts focused on the human and how humans converse. The way to decide what needs to be done is through exploring the human sensory and cognitive system and the ways that humans most naturally interact. Join this and you grasp the future (Brand, 1988, p. 11). The Media Lab is committed to making the individual the driver of new information technology by focusing on "idiosyncratic systems" that adapt to the user, by encouraging computation in real time means the human can interact live, "converse" with the machine, oblige it to function in human terms (p 255). Negroponte coined the term "idiosyncratic system" to distinguish a PC from a personalized computer, one that knows its user and can invoke all the inferences to handle vagaries and inconsistencies (p. 153).

Multimedia is successful because it reaches many learning styles. The variety of methods used in multimedia ensures that the content is grounded for the learner in many ways which assists retrieval, retention and application. The multiple impressions assist the memory system so that new information is moved from short term memory into long term memory through maintenance and elaborative rehearsal.

Kaleida is the multimedia joint venture between IBM and Apple. The two companies will develop new microprocessors and software needed to move personal computing into the next century. Kaleida will try to expedite the arrival of multimedia computing by making it easier for outside companies to write software that combines video, sound and graphics. By the mid-1990s, it could be licensing products to Apple and IBM, which share nearly 40 percent of the PC market.


A Snapshot of the Field

The promise of multimedia is to move more information more easily by doing it electronically and to provide more resources to everyone. The enabling technologies are not all in place, but it is becoming clear that the true multimedia platform is more likely to be something different. It will house a microprocessor, but we probably won't think of it so much as a computer as we will think of it as a telecommunications instrument.

To date, we have been told by the technology experts that multimedia will become a market only when the telephone companies provide us with a national fiber optic infrastructure capable of handling the massive bandwidth that each of us will need.

However, we may not have to wait five, ten or 15 years for multimedia to become a telecommunications reality.

Bell Atlantic is working on a prototype that it calls Project Edison. It uses a digital technology called ADSL - for asynchronous digital subscriber loop. Through the Project Edison prototype, Bell Atlantic is creating a technology that will enable us to have multimedia - voice, data, and video - available over the traditional copper cable (or twisted pair) that is already in place.

The proper use of information requires that you keep moving it so that it can eventually combine with other information into new patterns, new ideas, and ultimately, new solutions to problems.

Multimedia has strong implications for education but to reap its true benefits requires a network and resources to tap its vast potential.


Brand, Stewart (1987). "The Media Lab, Inventing the Future at MIT." Viking, New York, p 11.

Rheingold, Howard (1991). "Virtual Reality." Summit, New York.

TechTrends (October, 1988). "Nicholas P. Negroponte." Vol 33, No. 5, pp 11-13.

from "The Distance Learning Technology Resource Guide," by Carla Lane