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Other Intranet Multimedia Alternatives

Francis Vale

With the MPEG-4 spec bifurcated and delayed (see main story), and all the behind the scenes in-fighting still raging, what's a person to do in the here and now for developing meaningful, multimedia Intranet applications? Fortunately, there are a variety of very worthwhile options available, most of which will not interfere with, nor diminish MPEG-4 when it finally hits your desktop.

The largest single application for transmitting multimedia over an Intranet may well be for computer-based training (CBT) and distant learning (DL). These are broad concepts, and can encompass such activities as teaching people how to use a new desktop application or operating system upgrade, instructing the sales and support people in a new product, offering new skill set training, and so on. All these types of activities can greatly benefit from an interactive, multimedi"show and tell" format. These types of applications usually allow the individual to set their own pace, and work with them at a time of their own choosing.

In the CBT market, the company and product with the majority share is Macromedia and its Authorware Professional. In its latest incarnation, Version 4, Authorware has significantly upped the ante on ease of use over its main market rival, ToolBook, from Asymmetrix. The latter product is still heavily dependent upon scripting to get the job done, whereas Authorware 4 allows a great deal to be accomplished via a comprehensive drag and drop GUI. Moreover, in version 4, the Macintosh and Windows 95/NT versions are almost completely identical at the user interface, and it is now quite easy to move files between the two platforms.

Via Authorware, you have all the development tools and hooks required to bring together animation, graphics, text, audio, video, digital movies, and data entry into a seamless, interactive application. While even moderately complex designs Authorware still require scripting at some point, it is possible to go a considerable distance using just its drag and drop and "fill in the box" features.

Macromedia also offers a comprehensive Authorware application suite, called Interactive Studio. This $3,000 (street price) suite includes Authorware, Director, XRes, Shockwave, Sound Forge, and on the PC, also comes bundled with Backstage 2 and Solis Pathway. Director is a very powerful tool for creating fast paced multimedia applications. While there is some functional overlap between Director and Authorware, the latter is a far more powerful system for developing interactive multimedia applications. However, Authorware can incorporate content developed in Director. XRes is not so much a graphics creation program as it is tool for editing and creating both low and high resolution content, and has numerous tools for editing and enhancing content from other sources, like Adobe PhotoShop files, as well as working with files in such formats as JPEG, GIF, and PICT. Shockwave, Macromedia's method for compressing files for distribution over the Internet, also works with XRes. The result is significantly reduced transmission times for either XRes high resolution images or otherwise bandwidth busting content.

Shockwave plug-ins are supported in both Netscape and Microsoft web browsers. Shockwave allows you to dynamically pan, and zoom in or zoom out on an image from within your browser. Shockwave makes sure that only enough of the image data are downloaded for display at any selected zoom-in magnification level. SoundForge is a competent application for editing, processing, and enhancing digital audio files. Backstage Internet Studio has now been superseded by Macromedia's new Dreamweaver product. Backstage is at a level of Front Page in terms of its overall sophistication. It's a suite of tools to create, maintain and run web sites without writing any HTML code or CGI scripts. It comes with templates, clip art, Java and Shockwave files and some other tools that allow you to create web sites with minimal effort. As Backstage is no longer produced, Macromedia offers you the option of upgrading to its much more capable and modern Dreamweaver product for just $99. Finally, Solis Pathway is a comprehensive curriculum management package for setting up learning interactions, and auditing a person's performance. In sum, the Macromedia Interactive Studio box contains a complete Intranet multimedia application toolkit, with numerous best of breed components.

Some guidelines are in order, however, before you start salivating about all these Authorware Studio goodies. If all your Intranet users are on a T1 hookup, then go ahead and indulge yourself with all that cool video and audio. But if you have numerous Intranet users running on anything less, especially 28.8 modems, then immediately plan on foregoing all the glitzy video and digital audio stuff. Fortunately, even a decidedly low resolution animated image, plus explanatory text, can go an amazingly long way in getting an interactive point across.

But if you simply must have video in your distant learning application, then you might want to consider a new offering from White Pine Software, the commercial licensee of CU-SeeMe. White Pine has just announced ClassPoint, a server software product which defines student/teacher interactions using web-based learning. It's meant for small group, real time audio/video interaction. It also offers the use of a shared whiteboard. The entire interaction is under the instructor's control, so you avoid rambunctious students jumping in and butting one another off camera. Besides being far less distracting, this instructor controlled approach also cuts down on system and bandwidth overhead. Finally, you can use also use ClassPoint for registration of classes, setting up in-class and pre and post class materials lists. Given most real world Intranet environments, you can expect about 3 to 12 frames a second of video. The server connection must be a minimum of 128Kpbs (faster recommended) and the client connection must be a quality TCP/IP connection of at least 33.6Kbps (56.6K or higher is recommended, and Mac OS clients are planned.) Overall, this package, when used in the small scale environment for which it was designed, will likely do the reach out and teach somebody job for you.

ClassPoint also includes WhitePine's MeetingPoint server, a very interesting product all in of itself. MeetingPoint is a standards-based NT-based software server that provides real-time, multipoint, open conference interaction. MeetingPoint enables any H.323 client to connect with another. The H.323 spec itself does not define such multipoint conferencing, so MeetingPoint is a very useful and interesting piece of software. The H.323 standard specifies the means for sending audio, video, and data communications across IP based networks, including the Internet. While video capabilities are optional in the H.323 spec, any video-enabled H.323 terminal must support H.261, while support for H.263 is optional. (See Main Story.)

Users of Intel's ProShare, Microsoft's NetMeeting, White Pine's CU-SeeMe (which is non-H.323, but a standard CODEC is available), and others can all interact through the same MeetingPoint server. But regardless of which client used, beware network IP latency when using anything other than a high speed network. Even with remote users logged in via ISDN, you can reasonably expect people's lips to be out of synch with the moving picture. This is just the nature of the current IP beast

Commercial pricing for just the MeetingPoint server starts at $3,995 for a ten user license, $7,995 for 25 users, and goes up from there. If you buy the bundled MeetingPoint/ClassPoint package, a 10 user license is $6395, with 25 users costing $12,995. A ClassPoint add-on license is also available separately. (Educational and non-profit discounts are available for both server packages.) Factor in the price of 25 user combo MeetingPoint/ClassPoint server license, along with the cost of about $200 for a camera setup (though not all seats need cameras), and the total cost for a ClassPoint set-up is about $700 per seat (in addition, of course, to the cost of each PC).

Any of the above approaches will get you a long ways down the Intranet multimedia road, and without breaking your corporate piggy bank -- and even more importantly, without clogging up precious bandwidth.

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Copyright 1998, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

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