The sound-stage on your desktop
Software: Authoring programs
If you said you wanted to build a multi-lane freeway that spanned the globe, but you could not be sure where it would begin or lead, most people would think you were mad. But the architects of the “information superhighway” are ploughing vast resources into just such a project – a promised lad of 500-channel, bi-directional cable television with near instantaneous access to anything from banking services to movie-on-demand. The program is that not much of it exists yet, other than in business plans and the eyes on entrepreneurs.
Still, the major player – Apple, IBM, Motorola, Time Warne, Associated Press and so on – cannot all be wrong. They are investing heavily in redefining the way basic communications will have serious implications for designers. Interactive multimedia has grown into a substantial business almost overnight. According to a recent issue of Morph’s Outpost on the Digital Frontier, a California multimedia trade paper, there are currently 87,000 interactive information kiosks in the US, a figure expected to rise to 520, 000by the end of 1997. Revenues for the developers of such systems (including the designers who create the interfaces) are expected to climb during the same period from 2 million to .2 billion.
As demand increases, so does competition. We have now reached the point where production values matter, and inventors and developers are turning increasingly to multimedia artists to improve areas that were once the province of code-writing techno-nerds. Almost every company that deals in software, and in particular design software, is releasing an “authoring program to help designers to express themselves interactivity. And as if to underscore the “entertainment values required to sell the currency of information, several of the names make obvious reference to Hollywood: MacroMedia Director, Passport Producer, the Apple Media Tool.
These programs represent different approaches to the same problem. Each help you to structure a collection of assets – QuickTime movies, sounds, text, images and animations – to create a standalone program that can deliver your content in an information and entertaining way, whether for a product catalogue to be disturbed on CD-ROM or an interactive kiosk that guides a user through a building. Director uses a frame-by-frame-based “score” to compose presentations (much like a movie); Producer uses a time-line approach based on the nearly universal SMPTE time code: Media Tool uses a top-down flowchart in which screens are drawn as icons and then arranged into a meaningful order.
Of the three, Director has the longest history (and seven years counts as a history in the industry) and the richest range of features. It has a core of ardent supporters and many professional CD-ROM products have been created with it, notably the Journeyman Project game. Best of all, Director 4.0 is just around the corner.
The program functions on two levels. Designers with little interest in programming can combine their assets on a stage and apply built-in transition and animation effects to design elements (known as “cast members”). Those with more complex requirements (and stamina) can use the extensive pseudo-English scripting language “Lingo” to construct elaborate presentations that include complete navigation and animation development and the control of external laser and compact disc machines.
Version 4.0 has many improvements suggested by designers and developers. Lingo can now be compiled into a program code, enabling it to act much faster, while improved memory management means cast members can be removed from the memory when they are not being used. The number of score channels has been increased to 48, doubling the number of interactive elements that can be simultaneously present on the stage; each movie can now contain 32, 000 cast members (up from 512); files can be any size instead of the previous 16 megabyte limit. Lingo commands have been increased to simplify script-writing, while the new “movie in a window” feature allows several movies to play at the same time, all with full interactivity. Cast members can be dragged directly into the score, making composition more intuitive, and the improved on-line documentation provides real-world examples of Lingo usage to help designers speed through development time. The general interface has been redesigned in three-dimensional colour to help new users with the multitude of on-screen tools. A security feature has been added to allow developers to mask their code from end-users (previously end-users could easily disassemble a Director-created product and appropriate the code for their own projects).
The program still lacks adequate text-handling capabilities, however. The absence of kerning and leading commands is frustrating and designers will have to live with unkerned bitmapped text, or create their text elsewhere and import it. Sound can now be recorded directly, but as yet there is no sound editor, so an external utility such as SoundEdit is required to change your audio.
With the release this summer of Director for Windows, multimedia designers will have a true cross-platform solution. The Macintosh is the designers’ computer, but given that there are four times as many Windows-based machines in the market place as Macintoshes, the odds are that the client will use Windows. MacroMedia is planning players for other platforms including 3DO, so cross-platform functionality should soon become a regular feature.
The Apple Media Too! (AMT), Apple’s comparative offering – at least in price –is a curious one. It comes in two models, the basic AMT and the AMT Programming Environment. The AMT does very little. It has a built-in text capabilities, no image- or paint-editing areas and no Quicktime- or sound- editing features. All the assets must be created outside the program, imported and arranged on screen(s). The program provides a single window on which the user creates icons of screens, which are then linked, using an arrow tool, to structure the presentation. The result is a fast prototyping tool with extremely limited transition effects and minimal interactivity.
The Programming Environment provides more, but it requires a thorough knowledge of “C” or MPW programming, not something (m)any designers have. The package is vastly overpriced and largely unadopted by designers, though the apparent open-endedness engenders a certain air of mystery – is Apple developing plug-ins that will make it do wonderful things?
Passport Producer Pro loses marks just for the tired suffix “Pro” – does this mean that “amateur” versions of the program are available? Producer reveals its ancestry in its SMPTE time-code base. Passport produces best-selling MIDI sequencing software for electronic music and the inclusion of extensive MIDI-handling capabilities makes this program unique.
Similar in function to Director, elements are dragged into a time-line window where start and stop times are entered – for example, a Quicktime movie may be programmed to start at 0:00:00 and play until 0:10:00. During that time other elements – including audio, animations, text and interactive buttons – can be made to stop and start according to how they are arranged in the window. The interface is attractive and easy to grasp, though it relies a little too heavily on obscure icons. But overall, unless you want to make extensive use of external laser disc players or MIDI synthesisers, I would recommend Director.
There are several other programs you can use for interactive presentations: HyperCard (recently upgraded to 2.2); Supercard (recently bought back by its inventors – expert a major upgrade); Authorwave: Action!; Persuasion and others. Their capacity ranges from simple animated carts to full-blown interactive titles, and their price from 0 to over ,000.
The construction of the superhighway is upon us. Instead of standing around wondering who will get the signage commission, it is up to us, as potential users, to make its interface a pleasant, engaging and informative experience. With tools like Director 4.0, we can.
First published in Eye no. 13 vol. 4 1994