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Computer graphics you can afford

Lesley Richardson and Tom Duncan
Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education

Lesley's predecessor, Stuart Fletcher, and the Head of the Resource Materials Centre, Dr Hugh Avey, had for some time considered the need to "automate" graphics by moving into computer graphics. By the time they finally decided to make a move they realised that it had not been considered in the budget and they did not have funds available. After rearranging priorities they had about $2000 to $3000.

When Tom Duncan joined the Media Services Unit, as an audio visual producer in July 1985, a 4A video typewriter with one font, was the only graphic facility available. A Sony SMC 70G computer was acquired along with a videotiser which allowed the generation of computer graphics, however there was no commercial software available so Tom wrote the software. This was mainly used for special effects on promotional programs.

Further impetus to act resulted from requests from the Division of External and Continuing Education, to be able to show computer screens on videotape. This was needed in the production of learning materials for basic computing, such as, introduction to spreadsheets, introduction to word processing and using Open Access. It was found that pointing a video camera at a computer screen would not produce the required resolution of image. Apparently there was a board available for IBMs and compatibles, which would provide a composite signal output, but it alone cost about $3000 to $4000.

In February 1987, while visiting the UK, Dr Avey attended a major computer show "Which Computer" in Birmingham. He noticed that one of the largest crowds was around the Amiga stand. Apart from the fact that the Amiga was relatively new, they also had a demonstration of the Triangle Television's genlock, showing how the Amiga could be used to generate graphics for video production. On returning to Australia with all the necessary pamphlets and information it was decided that the Amiga with the genlock would provide the facilities needed. So the Media Services Unit purchased an Amiga and imported the genlock which arrived about three weeks after I took up my position at the Institute.

The genlock does two things, it locks the output from the Amiga to an external video source and it combines the RGB signals to form a composite video signal. This composite output is now synchronised with the composite signal from another source, such as a camera or a video recorder and can be fed through a mixer. This means that the signal from the computer can be recorded directly onto videotape without any loss in quality.

Tom Duncan was very enthusiastic about this acquisition and has been the major force behind setting up the system, investigating and evaluating available software and getting it all together and running smoothly.

A crucial factor in the decision to set up this system, that should be mentioned, is that Dr Avey had seen the facility working. So often we are told about wonderful pieces of equipment but when it comes to seeing a demonstration in an actual working situation manufacturers and/or suppliers let us down and then wonder why we will not buy. In the same way we always check new software by using the package on our machine. Our suppliers now appreciate the necessity for this requirement and make a test copy available.

The first purchase was an Amiga 1000 with 512K of RAM, an 850 kB 3.5 inch disk drive, a RGB monitor and the genlock. This cost about $2800. This system has been expanded by the addition of a second 850 kB 3.5 inch disk drive, and an extra megabyte of RAM. To enable us to do what was originally requested, that is, put the computer screen onto videotape, we also added an IBM compatible Sidecar, with a 256 kB 3.5 inch floppy disk drive. Acquiring the Sidecar also provided a facility for adding a 20 megabyte hard disk. Total cost for the complete facility $4800.

When looking at the computer graphics we produce, it is important to keep in mind three main points. First, the outstanding graphics you see on television have either been produced on very powerful very expensive computers or have been designed on large computers but produced as traditional cell animation by skilled graphic artists. Second, that apart from Institute promotional programs, the aim of our graphics has not been to overawe and/or entertain but to clarify and present an educational concept clearly and simply. Third, the Amiga computer system and software are easy to use, you do not have to be a whiz computer programmer or for that matter, a top graphic designer, to achieve good quality graphics.

The development and availability in Australia, of software for the Amiga has snowballed during the past twelve months. The software is also very reasonably priced which is another important consideration. Some of the main software packages used by the Media Services Unit are:

Deluxe Paint 11A painting package with up to 32 colours. It allows easy creation of graphics, by making brushes for painting or drawing lines of any width or drawing circles, etc.
Ageis AnimatorA 2 dimensional animation package which is very easy to use. It allows the creation of objects that can be moved anywhere on the screen. Other images from Deluxe Paint 11 can also be used as backgrounds or as windows which can be moved around the screen.
TV TextA character generator package which is good for titles for video programs.
ProVideoCGIA 100 page character generator, which is a bit more difficult to use, but offers a lot of features, like scrolling from one page to the next, wipes, crawls and dissolves. It is very good for closing credits.
Ageis Videoscape 3DA three dimensional animation program which will create animation files that can be replayed on the computer screen in real time.
VideoTitlerA titling program using inbuilt fonts or to which other fonts can be added, the polyfonts feature allows the tilting, twisting or modification of the characters.
AgeisDraw+A CAD program which is a useful design tool for drafting.
DigiviewA digitising package which takes a video image and stores it on a disk. Very useful for putting an image into the computer where it can be modified by using one of the paint or draw programs.

Some of the new packages require a lot of memory to allow full use of the features, so at least 2 megabytes of memory should be included if you wish to take full advantage of the program.

The Amiga system has provided a versatile and effective tool for creating computer graphics and enhancing video production. For about $5000 plus software, we have been able to cater for the more sophisticated video viewing standards of our audiences.

Authors: Lesley Richardson, BEd, Grad Dip Educ. Tech. MACE, is Head of the Media Services Unit at DDIAE and is responsible for managing and coordinating audio, video, graphic and photographic production. Tom Duncan is Producer/Director (Audio/visual) in the Media Services Unit at the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education. He came to DDIAE with twenty years experience in commercial television, doing all jobs from cameraman to videotape editing and directing.

Please cite as: Richardson, L. and Duncan, T. (1988). Computer graphics you can afford. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (Eds), Designing for Learning in Industry and Education, 81-82. Proceedings of EdTech'88. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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