Multimedia 'Drums' Are Beating Loudly

SOMETIME in the Stone Age, roughly 10,000 BC, a man donned a buffalo mask, played what appears to be a stringed instrument, and danced near a herd of reindeer.That, anyway, is the way he's depicted in a cave painting in Ariege, France. It is perhaps the oldest known example of what today computer companies call multimedia. Anyone who has seen a play or watched television has experienced a multimedia event. It's the combination of sight and sound - of different forms of information - to convey a message. Early man used it to invoke supernatural spirits. Today, we are on the threshold of using multimedia techniques to convey and absorb all sorts of information. A year ago, the city of Atlanta won the honor of hosting the 1996 Olympic Games. It won partly because it wowed the International Olympic Committee with two multimedia presentations. The first one, shown at the committee's meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, blended computer graphics with satellite photos to allow the viewer to "fly in" to Atlanta. With a trackball (a gizmo similar to a computer mouse that moves the cursor), the viewer could travel around the city, see Olympic buildings and stadiums that hadn't been built yet, and move inside them to take a closer look. Text and narration aided the presentation. At the Olympic committee's meeting in Tokyo, Atlanta gave an even more sophisticated multimedia view of what life might be like for an athlete in Atlanta's Olympic village. The key, here, is interactive ability. Visitors to Olympic Atlanta determined what they wanted to see and for how long. In other words, unlike the Stone Age audience or the 20th-century child in front of the TV set, the viewer calls the shots with multimedia. Now, computer companies like International Business Machines, Amiga, NEC, and Microsoft have climbed on board. The technological pieces of multimedia are already here. There are desktop computers that record and manipulate sound as easily as they edit text or manipulate images. On a trip last week to Boston, I was amazed to find that the radio arm of this newspaper, MonitoRadio, now uses computers to edit sound bites for its broadcasts. The trick will be to integrate all these tools with easy-to-use software. That's coming. Already, there's a multimedia encyclopedia on CD-ROM. (A CD-ROM is a compact disc that "plays" text and images as well as music.) CD-ROM players are coming down in price. Multimedia people are even getting their own magazine: MPC, The Multimedia PC Magazine, which debuts this fall. David Fales, the magazine's marketing director, expects a bevy of new CD-ROM discs to hit the market before Christmas. If they prove popular, he says they will spark a huge CD-ROM industry much like the videocassette industry of a decade ago. Ultimately, the success of multimedia will hinge on how good these CD-ROM offerings are. I have a split opinion about the technology. At its best, it is a new kind of educator, engaging children to learn as easily as MTV gets them to watch and Nintendo gets them to play. At its worst, multimedia techniques are a distraction - another outlet for ever more persuasive communication that sells but really doesn't say very much. Fred Dyer, codirector of the Multimedia Technology Laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta (and an important force behind Atlanta's Olympic presentations), believes the former. "The reason MTV has been such a hit is that it provides sensory inputs that are unconventional," he says. He expects multimedia to revolutionize education, to force teachers to find new ways to engage students in the process of learning. Great. Technology used properly can improve education. But Mr. Dyer also talks about how the Atlanta presentations overwhelmed viewers with sensory inputs. By design. More noise and pictures make a better sales pitch. But not a better teacher.

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