|Expanding Access to Science and Technology (UNU, 1994, 462 pages)|
|Session 3: New technologies and media for information retrieval and transfer|
|Multimedia technology: A design challenge|
The term "multimedia" has two possible meanings. Firstly, the "media" can refer to storage media such as WORMs, CD-ROMs, and disks. Secondly, it can refer to the presentation of information using different media such as sound, graphics, text, etc. . In this paper the second meaning applies throughout.
The idea of using multiple media to improve communication between humans and computers is not new. A paper of 1945, "How We May Think" , suggested a multiple media approach that was later reassessed . Some well-known early experiments with multimedia were carried out at the MIT "Media Lab" in 1977 , and Maekawa and Sakamura  also described an early multimedia machine that was being implemented at the University of Tokyo. The system had an optical disc, 100 Mbyte disc, a high-speed resolution graphics display, a TV camera, and sound input/output. These collections of multimedia devices were very expensive and it is only recently that a host of multimedia tool kits have entered the market-place at a relatively low cost.
But why should we be interested in multimedia interfaces? Well, even a cursory study of human beings communicating information between each other will show the importance of the use of multiple media in the communications process. Human beings often use at least two sensory channels (visual and auditory) but frequently use a third - touch - as well, and within these communication channels, a rich variety of media are employed. When one artificially reduces the richness of the set of communication media being used (for example by taking a tape recording of a meeting), the reduction in communication power is obvious. Since human beings do seem to be able to communicate more effectively between each other than with computers, the idea of employing additional media in human-computer interaction seems a sensible one, whose inclusion is likely to improve the communication process. The early stumbling blocks that prevented the implementation of multimedia facilities on computers were lack of power and storage. Now these problems have largely been overcome and multimedia tool sets are thus becoming available on both personal computers and high-performance workstations.
The technical problems of providing a variety of media with acceptable performance and at a reasonable cost are not the only stumbling blocks that may prevent the exploitation of multimedia facilities. Another key problem is that of devising a methodology to aid multimedia interface design. Being able to provide multimedia interfaces is not enough. One must also be able to know when to use which media and in what combination to solve a particular interface problem.
I will first discuss multimedia facilities generally, indicating what media are and why there may be a problem associated with the design of multimedia interfaces. I will then examine the PROMISE project (a large collaborative project), which is particularly concerned with the development of a methodology of multimedia design. Although many of the ideas in PROMISE come from work in process control, they are likely to be generalizable to wider domains.