Multimedia - Myths, Opportunities, and Challenges

Summary of Ulrich Riehm und Bernd Wingert: Multimedia - Mythen, Chancen und Herausforderungen. Mannheim: Bollmann 1995, p. 1-7 (Translated by Michael Rader, ITAS)

Everybody is talking and writing about "multimedia". But is there already such a thing? We can answer this question affirmatively, but in a way that at first might seem surprising: "Multimedia" exists to the extent at which it is being talked about, that is as a subject of communication. And these are the visions, concepts, plans and ideas for applications. For the majority of readers, multimedia as a mere subject for discourse is not really tangible. Experience in the direct sense would be desirable in order to form a true impression. This opportunity is available only for a select circle if we think of the pilot projects that have been launched. The public as a whole is still excluded. However, a wide variety of CD-ROM products incorporating features aiming for multimedia processing are available to provide first multimedia experiences. We are thinking of encyclopaedias, artistic productions, books providing general knowledge and children's books, in which the figures speak in small animated plots and thus incorporate and support language learning in scenarios. In some cases readers might have had initial experience with desktop video, tele-cooperation or the Internet. What is confusing is that all of these heterogeneous applications are covered by the term "multimedia".

Chapter 1 undertakes an attempt to create a semblance of order. In a technical sense, multimedia is defined by a combination of media. There is an interplay between discrete media (e.g. text) and continuous media (e.g. film) which may be used interactively. The computer is indispensable for this "intergration of media" and the element of "interaction". Thus, as a first approximation we might say that "multimedia" consists of "computer", "media" and "interaction". And in the various fields of application, this threesome creates forces for the novel development of previously unknown applications. Thus, the element of interaction is familiar from many current computer applications. However, it is now possible to present a text both as a script to be read and as a speech to be heard, to show both stills and motion pictures, even to integrate real films and to have these dynamic options available "at the click of button" - this is relatively new. If we shift our attention to another area of application: films and television have long been multimedial, but the opportunity to interact is still largely lacking. If the previously mentioned triad combines in this field, it is possible that the former mass and distribution medium could be transformed into a customised information medium. Telecommunications, which for the average user are restricted mainly to using the telephone and fax machines, could be developed further into tele-cooperation supported by multimedia, and this would, for example allow collaborators to work jointly and synchronously on the same document from different locations. These modes are already at the trial stage.

In this sense, chapter 1 deals with the basic concepts and characteristics, stresses the important distinction between local and networked applications, provides an overview of the various cable-based network types (telephone, broad band and data networks) and the networks not linked by cable (e.g. via satellite), analyses alternative infrastructures and informs on actors, forecasts and marketes. In the section on networks, in particular, we were unable to spare our readers the confrontation with bit rates, band widths, transmission times and other figures.

A first round of this kind demonstrates that multimedia is not only a matter of technical issues (such a digisation, compression standards, network protocols etc.). In the economy it is also a matter of new competitive and cooperative relationships, on the time scale it is a matter of gigantic dynamics and in terms of society it is a matter of the replacement of established "institutions". This is ilustrated for the telephone.

The following six chapters (2 to 7) address two very different types of question. In the first block (chapter 2 to 4) the state of progress of multimedia in three major fields of application is examined: the economic sector, private life, and the public sector. In the following block of three (chapters 5 to 7) we deal with special issues: learning with multimedia and current knowledge on its effectiveness for learning, the problem of an adequate language for media and the emergence of forms of reception, and the technological opportunities being provided by DAB (digital audio broadcasting) and other types of digital radio. In chapter 8, we draw our conclusions and set out proposals for further research.

In chapters 2, 3 and 4 the object was not merely to describe the current state of applications and previous achievements. We thought it appropriate to stress a specific aspect in each field of application. For the economic sector (chapter 2) this was the effectiveness and rationalisation of business operations and thus not the products and services that industry already provides. In the private sector (chapter 3), which could increasingly become part of working life ("teleworking"), the accent was on the emergence of new forms of media, such as television labelled "interactive". In the public sector (chapter 4) we focus on the relationship between citizens and the state and not primarily on the "re-engineering business", the reshaping of business transactions also being discussed in this area.

Chapter 2 focuses on the first of the three major fields of application, the economic sector. Within the framework of the preliminary study we concerned ourselves with the economic sector not so much as the provider of products and services as in its role as a user of multimedia. In this respect the attractive perspective is: With which functions, in which areas and with which applications does experience exist, where does an application "pay its own way"? We have selected three case studies (a pharmaceutical firm, a telecommunications enterprise and a retail stores group) from the report prepared on this sector. It can be shown how different expectations, existing experience (e.g. with video conferencing in studios, with desktop video based on ISDN) and overall computer strategies are. In no event is it possible to speak of widespread application. And we may also distinguish distinct differences between sectors of the economy. Banking and insurance, mail order, advertising, publishing and tourism seem to be areas with favourable conditions for multimedia applications. It can be easily understood that there are only restricted fields for the sensible application of multimedia within an enterprise, if we think of highly formalised processes of information and communication (e.g. the excchange of data on commissions and orders). No multimedia support is required to perform this. In other fields (coordination, tele-cooperation on segments of work), which are more open, scarcely formalised or formalisable, multimedia might be more suitable. However multimedia is not in itself a driving force: applications will only emerge from a long-term evolutionary process.

Chapter 3 examines the private sector of applications which is at the centre of interest in public discussion, with "interactive television" as the guiding vision, in any shape whatever. This public interest is understandable, e.g. due to the extreme technological challenges to be met - for instance in the server field - or on account of the mass market which might be created. However, actual developments by no means justify this strong interest. Among experts there is widespread agreement that the euphoria existing both in the USA and Europe two or theee years ago was groundless. It is more realistic to assume that the introduction of interactive television will take place in the medium or long term (meaning probably after 2005 rather than before that date), that issues of demand and user acceptance are still largely not understood, and, finally, that the social framework conditions for such a medial future still have to be created (if it is all desirable). A closer look reveals that multimedia in the private sector stands as a kind of cipher for completely different interests and developments, e.g. for a largely liberalised and newly organised telecommunications market or for participation in the continually expanding and lucrative telephone business.

Chapter 4 is devoted to the public sector, highlighting the relationship of the citizen to the state and the aspect of innovation. The issue of how to launch innovative applications of multimedia in public administration was in fact the focal point of the workshop organised by ibek (Karlsruhe) and the TAB in order to supplement the report produced on the public sector. The overall result of the workshop was the finding, backed convincingly by experience in administration, that multimedia as a technology cannot trigger such innovations by itself and that, instead, comprehensive approaches to reform and "management of change" are required.

For the public area, the administration of services and political participation are described in detail while other application areas (medicine, planning) are dealt with only very cursorily and yet others (such as government administration, traffic and the environment) are left out of the present report altogether. Chapter 4 retraces developments in Germany and the USA, describes the current situation and deals in detail with the NII, the Clinton/Gore administration's National Information Infrastructure. Despite the scepticism which may be brought to bear with regard to the success of this vision, it emerges that there is a broad basis for this initiative including grass-roots groups. The chapter concludes with two scenarios: the first sketches a picture of the future assuming that market forces will continue to largely determine further developments, the second under the assumption that the active uptake of multimedia in the public sector will be employed to "revitalise" public services.

Chapter 5 is devoted to learning with multimedia and examines in particular existing empirical evidence for the effectiveness of multimedia products for learning. In the first section, the history of developments to the present is retraced and the broad range of products is described. These various forms of application extend from CBT (computer based training) via adaptive learning systems to Hypertexts, Hypermedia and tele-learning. Contrary to all intuitive logic suggesting that "more media produce more" it should be stressed: learning with multimedia is only effective under very definite conditions which are only gradually becoming apparent. It is not the medial form on its own having this effect; this is highly dependent on the methodological and didactic treatment and the correct integration in the learning context. In a second section, findings on and models for central aspects of learning effectiveness are dealt with, e.g. on the balance between texts and pictures, the effects of dynamic media an d the effect of interaction. Chapter 5 accents vocational training and further education and only touches on learning at schools. For this reason, the conclusions draw attention to serious change that has already taken place in vocational training. And this change will continue. Market estimates and practical experience show that the application of multimedia-supported learning systems in the field of vocational training and further education will be reinforced. They should, however, be accompanied increasingly by empirical evaluation research.

Chapter 6 is concerned with a topic which might at first seem marginal or even beside the point: is a separate and adequate "medium language" emerging as a result of multimedia products and application? This is because the static and dynamic media have not only to be suited to each other, but also to the tasks in question, the forms of reception, previous knowledge, preferences and socialisation experience of the users. And whatever media (text, sound, pictures etc.) are supposed to interplay, they must be interactive, accessible for the application, legible and not simply colourful and loud. Without the development of a suitable media language and of forms of reception on the part of the viewers, listeners, learners and users, multimedia will not be able to achieve a breakthrough. These issues are largely not researched even if there is already first practical experience and advice available. In this chapter 6, links were possible to the results of research on motion pictures and television, but beyond this it was still necessary to tread uncharted territory. In this spirit, tasks and challenges for on-screen typography are collated and a number of examples of interactive art are described.

Radio enthusiasts among our readers might still have a workable receiver from the thirties or forties. It is still possible to listen to the radio with such a set, albeit not in today's customary reception quality and also not to many stations. But the consistency of this universal mass medium is remarkable and, because of its familiarity, remains largely unheralded. With the advent of digistation, this era is drawing to a close. Radio is joining with multimedia - this is why is was included in the preliminary study. What the future will look like, and if and for how long the new forms will survive is anyone's guess. Chapter 7 deals with these question.

With digitised radio (in various shapes), data services previously unavailable by this means can now be integrated and provided for customised access.

Chapter 7 is concerned with DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting), which has already been approved as the European standard for audio broadcasting, and other digital, sometimes satellite-based forms. DAB was to be launched in Germany with some pilot projects in 1995. Several options and questions with respect to DAB are brought up. Among the open questions is the relationship to FM radio (should DAB replace FM?) and the legal issues raised in this respect (how should the data services feasible with DAB be licensed?) DAB could in fact also be used exclusively for data transmission or even television programmes. In this case, TV on the radio would be possible! This example illustrates that the openess of the digital future is not only an opportunity but also a problem.

In the final chapter 8 we first present selected results on coverage of multimedia in mass media reporting. According to these, public discussion is focused on television and economic aspects and does not yet deal with alternative concepts for the future. Multimedia is not simply technology or the future of television; it is also a field of politics. We explain some fundamental alternatives which should be dealt with in political discussion, for example the question whether the further development should be left to the market or whether the state has (or should have) a specific responsibility for the new infrastructure. As a field of political action, multimedia has several levels: one of visions and goals, one of measures and programmes (e.g. the pilot projects), one of regulatory measures and a fourth level of procedures to achieve directives on content and media law.

Chapter 8 concludes with proposals originally developed for a subsequent phase of analysis, but due to the announced enquete commission no longer have this purpose. However, as topics they are still justified:

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Updated 08/18/1998 - Any comments to ulrich.riehm@kit.edu