Strategy's columnists debate the pros and cons of current issues.

Written by David Tebbutt, Strategy magazine 11/90 - scanned

MULTIMEDIA n. singular. The combined use of still photographs, cartoons, music, text, motion pictures, especially in business and education.

Martin Banks believes multimedia, with its infinite flexibility, can bring a whole new dimension to all tasks that hinge upon the accurate and interesting presentation of information.

THE UPSIDE: Humans have a funny quirk about taking their own capabilities for granted. We communicate, for example, by talking, writing, drawing, playing music or whatever, and often do at least two of these things simultaneously. Yet we remain surprised when it is suggested that the same activities might be performed by technology.

The latest over-hyped creation of the computer industry, multimedia, is just such a technology. Its bringing together of sound, text, graphics, animation and video imaging in a single, infinitely flexible, interactive communications medium, is doing no more than we humans do already.

This should be remembered when considering the current over-selling of multimedia. The problems of skills, cost and appropriateness identified alongside must also be borne in mind. But, in the end, there is gold in them thar multimedia hills if you take time to think about the mining process. The real question, therefore, is where to start digging.

The most obvious, and current flavour of the month, is business presentations. Forget the hype, there is a great deal to be said for the use of multimedia in this area. Not only is it possible to use video, sound and the like to put an extra 'gloss' on a person-to-person presentation, but a broader view of the technology can also create a new style of presentation that could be much more effective.

For instance, sales promotions can be taken to new lengths of surrogacy, with customers selling to themselves. Take, for example, a car showroom. Instead of being pounced upon by smooth sales staff, customers can sit in front of a computer terminal and see images of different cars, read textual specification details and hear a voice over explaining their basic features. Choose one, however, and more details, pictures and perhaps a video can be accessed. The customer gets as much information as they want, without pressure, and can change course as they see fit at a moment's notice.

This approach can be applied to virtually any form of 'shopping'. For example, using electronic mail for access to a remote system, a company buying department can find out the latest products, prices, specifications and the like from a potential supplier. 'Selling' becomes people buying what they want without pressure from sales staff, but with more information than they might get from them.

Electronic mail (e-mail), by which messages are sent between computers using ordinary phone lines, is a potential application area for multimedia. E-mail is already popular in many large companies, yet the messages are still predominantly boring old plain text messages.

That is not how humans usually communicate. We combine words, pictures, moving images, sound and graphics of all kinds in our everyday lives, and multimedia technology can bring those same elements together in an e-mail environment.

For example, a video clip of you in apoplectic rage, with the Ride of the Valkyries blasting away in the background, as an e-mail message, will summon a subordinate far more effectively than any textual 'please see me' missive. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

One area where the value of mixing words and pictures has long been understood is in technical documentation, and this is already proving to be a major application area for multimedia capabilities. Technical authors try hard to explain complex processes in words, but cannot always succeed. Even the addition of well-drawn diagrams may only partially alleviate the problem.

Multimedia, however, allows you to construct the ultimate documentation, 'manuals' which combine not only textual explanations and diagrams, but voice-overs and video clips of tasks being performed on an interactive, 'show me' basis. Imagine being able to read some instructions and, if unsure of their meaning, effectively ask the system to show you what to do. A three-dimensional diagram might help (extracted from the original 3D design work on the product), but if insuffficient, then you can opt for the video of an expert performing the task.

Perhaps the biggest market for the majority of companies, both as a user and a seller of the technology, is in training and education. The easiest way to learn about a product or a procedure of any kind is to sit with an expert and interact with them. But experts are expensive, and cannot be cloned to sit with everyone who needs training (or, more importantly, reminding). However, they can be there within the system, to be called up whenever the user feels the need for explanation, elucidation or demonstration.

The potential savings in staff training costs alone, which for many companies run deeply into six figures, will be enough to drive multimedia along rapidly.

THE DOWNSIDE: You will have noticed, I'm sure, that the computer industry likes nothing more than a brand new buzzword. Today's is 'Multimedia'. Opposite, you can read a rundown of some of the potential benefits of this wondrous new technology. It has applications in just about every area of human endeavour, from entertainment to selling, from learning to visualisation. Indeed, the growing interest in multimedia is one of the reasons that some computer manufacturers can still raise a smile, despite the current recessionary climate.

Mind you, multimedia doesn't come cheap. Where a complete desktop publishing system would cost you around £8000, a full-blown multimedia development set-up would set you back a further #10,000. At #18,000 a throw, you need to think rather carefully before buying such a system. One thing is certain: amateur multimedia developers are unlikely to spring up in your company as they did in the early days of desktop publishing.

Even more than that application, multimedia requires a combination of skills that the average user simply does not possess. It's all right if the sum of what you're doing is annotating a file with voice comments or sticking a video clip into a database. These are the simpler manifestations of multimedia (and, incidentally, don't really deserve the sobriquet). They do not really take much advantage of the computer's power, which comes into play only with truly interactive multimedia, where events unfold according to the user's commands and actions.

A point-of-sale kiosk, for example, could give the user a most satisfying introduction to your company's products or services. Whatever you sell, an interactive booth which answers the buyer's initial questions can be a tremendous adjunct to your showroom. Tremendous, that is, if the content has been thought through properly.

The scope for messing it up is huge. You have to think of all the possible things the user will want to know; you have to get film produced to illustrate the key features of the product; you might even need accompanying music or speech. The thing requires a complex mixture of skills, including those of the video producer, the scriptwriter and the psychologist. At what point, for example, would you encourage the user to leave the system and go and talk to a sales person?

Think very carefully before being caught up in the multimedia hype. Ask yourself what would multimedia add to your company's ability to achieve its obectives? Look at the money and the personnel skills you will need to find. Look, too, at the availability of working system - not only the development system but also the delivery system. It is no good churning out optical discs by the thousand if your users don't have optical disc layers. You might be better printing your multimedia opus onto VHS videotape. You may lose the interactivity, but at least you'll get your message to more people.

However, the biggest hidden danger for the multimedia enthusiast lurks in copyright. Multimedia is the coming together of text, sound, animation, stills and full-motion pictures. If you don't write the words and music yourself, then other people will almost certainly own the copyright on 'your' work. The same applies to video sequences and possibly the stills and animation too. The easiest way to create multimedia is to cobble together existing material. And the easiest way to end up in court is to replay the resulting product in public.

Some of the most successful multimedia producers at the moment have very close alliances with owners of recorded material. In America, the Voyager Company is tied in with Janus Films; ABC and Warner are themselves film and television companies. In the UK, the MultiMedia Corporation is an associate company of the BBC. They all have the ability to raid archives and put together some pretty impressive multimedia product as a result.

One company that didn't have such an association recently produced a sales presentation which it tried to liven up with extracts from a Tina Turner concert video. Tina was squeezed and stretched, little bits of her anatomy were cut from the original video and blown up to hideous proportions. It was a masterly example of the multimedia producer's art, but it had two major disadvantages. The first was that the company seriously breached Ms Turners's rights, both as a human being and as a performing artist. The second, and this should be a warning to everyone considering multimedia, is that the audience were so distracted by Ms Turner's antics that they couldn't recall a single element of the sales message.

Sure, multimedia is going to be a big thing. But, so are its problems. Just remember, before you take the plunge, look at its relevance to your company, its likely costs, the skills needed, the available technology and the copyright issue.