Multimedia Gets Standardized
Except for processors, there is no field in the computer market that sees as much changeover and new product introductions per year than multimedia. With the popularity of home PC machines, inexpensive CD-ROM and sound cards, and talented 3D video systems, multimedia has become the must-have of the last two years. Almost every PC that leaves a store, direct mail marketer, or VAR is equipped for multimedia.
The software companies love the market, of course, as it racks up huge sales. Especially in the one field that has driven multimedia almost from the start: games. PC games are a multibillion dollar business, and as hardware has advanced, software has kept up. It’s not unusual to see game requirements of a fast Pentium, advanced sound board, fast RAM-heavy video boards, and multi-speed CD-ROM drives. Customers with existing machines have to upgrade to keep up, changing their quad-speed drives purchased for several hundred dollars two years ago for twelve-speed drives for under two hundred. Sound card technology has advanced considerably as well, with new boards from Creative Labs and others offering 64-bit sound.
The problem with all these new hardware devices is that they are often driven by proprietary software and are not compatible with other manufacturer’s devices. To help combat this trend, the industry (driven by both hardware and software companies) is setting new standards for multimedia. You hear the buzzwords all the time. This article takes a quick look at the emerging standards that you will encounter, what they are and what they do. We can’t look at every multimedia proposal on the market, but we can look at the most common.
Java, ActiveX and Shockwave
Java has been the fad of the last year, pushed by a lot of media hype and a few useful applications. Offered by a subsidiary of Sun, the original developer, Java is used to enhance Web pages by offering a client-server communications package for small applications. Java isn’t alone in this niche, through. Macromedia has gained a lot of attention with its Shockwave product, offered on thousands of Web sites. While Java and Shockwave are not direct competitors in that both can exist on the same server, the trend in the last few months has been to choose Shockwave over Java because of its better audio and video capabilities.
Shockwave lets a Web page designed do a lot more in terms of video, audio, and animation than Java does, and that’s what is driving the Shockwave trend lately. However, Shockwave does not have as complete and flexible a programming interface as Java, so it is likely to remain an add-on tool as well as Java.
Microsoft gets their share of this market with ActiveX, a technology based on Visual Basic. ActiveX gives a Web site designed the same sort of flexibility as Java and Shockwave, but goes even further. Also, the ActiveX interface is not as complex to use as Java and Shockwave. Both Microsoft and Netscape are integrating ActiveX capabilities into their browsers, and a third-party market for ActiveX tools has quickly arisen.
Hear the Bits, See the Pixels
Sound boards have progressed considerably in the last two years. Now you can have not only 64-bit sound, but full MIDI-compatible wave tables, surround sound (real and virtual), and all manner of synthesized effects. Traditionally, sound files were kept in WAV files (or AIFF files on the Macintosh and AU files on other platforms, although they are of lower quality than WAV files). With these files, they file is loaded into RAM and then played through a sound device. The problem with the approach is the entire file has to load, which can slow down access to a disk or CD-ROM, often causing jerky video with multimedia applications.
The newest technology that is used in game software employs streaming audio, which plays through the audio device as it is read from the disk or CD-ROM. This means no more pauses for file loading, and better integration with video at the same time. Leading the streaming audio market are Xing Technologies, known for their graphics tools, through their StreamWorks software and Progressive Networks with their RealAudio program. RealAudio is becoming a de-facto standard on the Web and is used by many Web servers, including the CBC for on-line broadcasting.
Creative Labs continues to lead the standard audio card market with their new Sound Blaster AWE 64 sound card, taking over from their popular Sound Blaster AWE 32. Sound Blaster has always been the comparison in audio cards, and most rivals make sure they emulate the Sound Blaster command sets. Creative Labs lost a little market share when they were slow to bring out a Plug-and-play version of the Sound Blaster AWE 32, but the AWE 32 PnP introduced last year gained back some of the ground. Several other audio companies have announced 64-bit audio cards for introduction early this year, many with MIDI capabilities built in.
Video clips have been like audio files, in that they were often loaded completely then played through a video player device. With the popularity of the Web, streaming video has become important and even with a 28.8kbps modem on-line video services exist that let users watch video in real-time without preloading. The most common file formats for video clips used to be AVI (for Windows) and MPEG (all platforms), as well as QuickTime (which used to be Macintosh only but now has drivers on almost all platforms). Xing Technologies’ StreamWorks works with video, too, and several other packages are in use on Web sites. Progressive Networks has developed their RealMedia Architecture (RMA) which combines RealAudio with a video delivery system, but so far there is no product available for the end user.
Other notable competitors in the market are Vivo Software with VivoActive, touted on the Web as being ideal for short clips. Intel is in the market with Streaming Media Viewer. White Pine Software offers CU-SeeMe which has gathered rave reviews in some computer consumer magazines. Narrative Communications offers three products, Enliven Viewer, Enliven Server, and Enliven Producer. Narrative Communications claims their products offer higher quality audio and video than any other system.
A quick survey of the audio market shows about three dozen different systems currently being offered, many of them over the Web only. Video systems don’t suffer too much, either, with about two dozen different video standards proposed. Most of the standards in both audio and video fields are being pushed by a company that wants to sell their particular brand of hardware card or software, and there seems to be no real consensus on the one or two offerings that can become standard. The on-line market for video and audio streaming technology will lead inevitably to some winnowing of the number of offerings, but there’s likely to be total confusion for several years more.
There is some progress. Netscape, known for its on-line tools like the Netscape Browser and Web servers, teamed up with 40 other companies to develop a proposed standard for real-time delivery of audio and video. The product, to be called the Real Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP) is based on software developed by Progressive Networks and Netscape. Setting a new standard is complex, and there are a lot of issues with real-time audio and video (especially over the Web) such as quality, latency, and loss of data. RTSP is still in the development stages, but is likely to see first light as a proposed standard this year.
If Netscape is pushing one standard, Microsoft must be developing a competing standard. And, of course, they are. Microsoft has announced it is developing the NetShow standard for real-time audio and video, although at the moment it is no more than a specification for what they want. Microsoft has yet to gather enough support from other companies to make it look like a pushover of RTSP, and even if RTSP is a de-facto standard, Microsoft is likely to offer NetShow with their operating systems anyway. An interesting comment was made by the product manager for Microsoft’s networked multimedia group, who said if the Internet Engineering Task Force adopts RTSP as an Internet standard, Microsoft will fully support it.
DirectX is a development of Microsoft to extend ActiveX. DirectX is a set of application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow Web page developers to add all kinds of hardware-specific instructions to a downloadable application. This will let PC users with specific brands of video or audio cards take advantage of the card’s features when an applet is downloaded over the Web. DirectX talks directly to the hardware, which is considered poor programming practice with languages like Java.
By using DirectX Microsoft greatly enhances the power of ActiveX. A set of pop-up controls will allow a user to control all aspects of the video and audio being played through DirectX. Microsoft envisions this technology as a base for an "active desktop" in which the entire Windows interface becomes an extension of the Web.
All of these technologies will lead to more powerful and flexible user machines, especially those making use of the World Wide Web. However, the audio and video technologies are not just for the Web, but also are likely to be exploited by game companies at the same time. By building more creativity and impact into their products, game companies can get users more involved in their software. With virtual reality taking off in the next couple of years, a whole new set of standards will arise, but for now, audio and video are undergoing a massive change that promises to replace a good number of the cards in a PC.