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Lost in Cyberspace

Online multimedia takes another giant leap forward

This article was originally published on October 26, 1999 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

The term "virtual reality" first hit the market a decade ago, when the earliest of what were touted as high-end "workstations" first came out.

But what passed for VR back then was for more virtual than reality. The '386s and '030-powered Macs (and even earlier Amigas, which gave rise to the term "multimedia") of the time simply didn't have enough horsepower to generate the kind of high-caliber on-the-fly animation and sound that the concept of VR had promised.

Four to five generations of CPUs later, though, personal computers now have enough power to provide true multimedia and virtual reality, the kind of integrated sensory experience that combines text and video, audio and animation – to weave together the best features of TV, radio and print into a new kind of media.

Of course, in the decade between the promise of VR and its delivery, much has changed in the computing world – most notably the appearance of the World Wide Web on the Internet. When multimedia and virtual reality were in their infancy, the assumption was that content would be delievered via high-capacity CD-ROMs. But in many ways, particularly in the delivery of news and entertainment, the Web has supplanted the CD-ROM (or even DVD-ROM) as the multimedia channel of choice, which has led to a new bottleneck in the development of multimedia: slow data transmission.

While computers are now fast enough to run high-end graphics and sound, the main obstacle to further growth on the 'Net is the current 56K limit on standard telephone line connections. DSL and cable modems continue to make inroads in the larger metropolitan areas, but most of the country remains behind the 56K threshold.

Which means that, for a majority of us, the multimedia promise of the Internet remains unfulfilled.

In the last few months, though, impressive gains have been made in compression rates for multimedia data. By further compressing the data, more information can be transmitted over current modems in the same amount of time.

In other words, true multimedia over the Internet is quickly becoming reality.

Most of us have already heard of the new ultra-compressed MP3 music format. MP3 can take a 4 meg .wav file and turn it into a 400K file – a 90 percent compression ratio with no loss of sound quality.

The dominant audio and video format on the Internet, RealNetwork's( RealAudio and RealVideo, can now match that performance. The new G3 RealProducer can output files of roughly the same size as MP3 with only a slight loss of sound quality; while not the CD quality of MP3, it's a dramatic improvement over previous RealAudio versions.

RealPlayer now also includes RealJukebox, a CD player for your computer that will go out onto a database on the Internet and load the song titles of your albums into the player for you (something the Winamp MP3/CD player has done for awhile)., which uses RealAudio formats to deliver its webcasts, has just upgraded both its Web site and its standalone music player, Spinner Plus.

The new release of Spinner Plus is version 3, and some of the firewall issues that have made using Spinner Plus at work impossible for many people are now solved (at least they are for me, where a series of firewalls has made downloading RealAudio files a continuing hit or miss affair). As with the previous version 2, you have 23 channel presets on your player. But the new version gives you more information on each song – not only the artist, but the album, too, and a link to where you can buy the disc.

The sound quality seems improved over previous versions as well, no doubt taking advantage of the new RealAudio standards. And continues to add new music channels to their radio-style lineup; there are now well over 100 different channels, ranging from ambient to reggae, Celtic to house, comedy to opera. Like alternative rock? You have your choice of four different channels: Alt.80s, Alt.90s, or Alt.hits. Jazz? You want big band, bop, fusion, swing, dinner, Sinatra-style or crooners? You get the idea.

Finally, the folks at Macromedia have given Shockwave a pretty significant upgrade. The browser plugin now comes with a floating toolbar that allows you to save five of your favorite Shockwave files, something you couldn't do before. (Shockwave is a graphics program that lets Web sites add animated features and games to their pages.) It also allows you to control the playing of Shockwave animation with a VCR-like control panel.

The latest Shockwave producer is also supposed to be pretty powerful; certainly, the growing number of Web atractions built with it (check out for some of the best) are increasingly sophisticated and faster to download.

If any one program shows the advances in online multimedia, it's Shockwave, and it's worth checking out just to see where the state of the art is.