IIMS 92 contents
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Multimedia: How does business define acceptable standards?

Charles Scott Balson
Conceptualist, Interactive Presentations, Perth

Perhaps I should apologise for presuming to be able to talk on the same forum as learned professors and academics whose expertise in this leading edge technology makes me look like a relic from the dark ages. Then again, perhaps I should not, as it is told in the immortal words of Desiderata "even the young (a bit of poet's license here) and foolish have a story to tell."

You see I have no formal academic training in computers or multimedia only a vision that has grown with my skills that I now apply in my business in what started as a hobby several years ago.

My interest in multimedia developed through an insatiable desire to wrap the philosophical verse that I wrote in my teens into a medium that would touch all the senses. There would be sounds of thunder... magical sunsets even sweet smells backing words of wisdom in a sensory interactive experience that would leave the viewer as entranced as I was when I wrote the verse on my farm at the bewitching hour in the foothills of the South African Drakensberg.

Yes, it was a dream. One that will one day come to fruition... one that I still pursue.

Commercial reality determines what is a dream and what is not. With the advances in computer technology yesterday's dreams are today's realities. When I first entered the world of computers in the mid 1980s we lugged around the old pack of potatoes 20 kg IBM semi-portable computers with big 20 megabyte hard disks that operated with the technology of the day's lightning XT speed.... it was an unwieldy machine that cost a pretty penny too.

Today we have advanced a long way with notebook computers operating at mips, with 100 megabyte hard disks and weighing only a few grams.

In between technologies have come and gone with some notable and expensive misses in both the hardware and software arena.

The world of multimedia is no different. So, like the proverbial line in the sand how does a business like mine determine whether advances in multimedia are currently commercially viable or not.

As a small business established at home with its roots using standard DOS compatible hardware and being self taught on relatively inexpensive software from which my hobby evolved I have had an unique experience in this field.

I have been able to objectively separate the dream from the reality. There is certainly nothing clever about being able to do this - it is called self preservation.

My business philosophy has been built around very simple strategies. These strategies are based on commercial realities that I will outline later.

Strategy number one:

Is my interactive presentation (IP[1]) readily transportable - preferably by floppy disk?
Strategy number two:
Is there a commercial benefit to my prospect?
If the answer to either of these questions is NO then like my vision on the farm in South Africa these ideas will normally remain dreams.

I am reminded by the Flanders and Swan classic about a garden full of furniture and a house full of plants. In this skit Flanders talks about nailing little metal bottle tops upside down on a board to act as a door mat and giving you the sensation of walking on "little metal bottle tops nailed upside down." He asks the rhetorical question "Now why did we put that down there?"

I am not suggesting that little metal bottle tops stuck upside down on a board is advanced technology, however the principal is the same.

I am one of the worst offenders, privately, in playing "metaphorically" with little metal bottle tops. I create splendid animated or graphic scenes such as faces metamorphosing into bottles of apple pie. (Amazing what you can create using computer graphics). I call this time my creative time. It is time when I occasionally come up with some very sound commercial ideas (very rarely related to the task at hand) but relaxing and fruitful.

Now I, personally, have a problem with computer graphics and animation. The problem is that even simple VGA graphic images take up lots and lots of space, more bytes than are currently available on a Dos floppy disk, even in compressed mode.

I must confess that my little line drawn in the sand has moved a bit as far as the strategy of portability is concerned. As at the time of preparing this paper my business, Interactive Presentations, is developing Burswood Casino (our host's) electronic public Casino facility.

This public facility has been conceptually designed by my business to resemble a bank ATM machine. The computer being encased in a wooden cabinet with the monitor visible but protected behind a sheet of non-reflective glass and a 16 key keypad being available as the functional interface to the public. This visual image is non-threatening to even the most computer illiterate visitor who would be well aware of the vagaries of the bank ATM machine.

The interactive concept developed for Burswood involves a sixty second long looping animated sequence which is visually attractive on a full colour VGA monitor. During the sequence the viewer is requested to touch the keypad. Once this action has been taken the program breaks into a slide based fully interactive program with full colour screens being used together with information and directional maps on the facility selected by the viewer from a main menu.

The complete interactive presentation (or IP) takes up less than 20 megabytes of hard disk space, is fast effective and above all not expensive.

The strategy utilised in the Burswood IP allows for easy updating of information via modem from the office; transportability of the complete program using an utility like lap link from one computer to another - without the client breaching any heinous copyright laws and a multimedia presentation that runs on computer hardware that costs under A$3,000 per unit (including the cost of the keypad conversion).

The total package, I would venture to say, developed around my two strategies brings the world of public electronic IP based information directories into the ballpark of most middle to large sized businesses.

Currently there are two main commercially viable IP market applications. The largest area being training and support, and the second being the area of dissemination of information. This information is currently centred around promotional or directory type information.

My personal finding is that, without the strategy of portability by way of freely copying the IP from computer disk the commercial viability in both these areas becomes highly restricted unless a large corporation has a specialised division dealing in computer based training applications. Under these conditions the issue of portability is not such a major issue but then neither is the potential need of the services of an outside contractor.

For those of you who are just visiting Australia I am sure that you have been as entranced by the laid back attitude of us *Aussies" as I was when I first arrived here six years ago. We are currently going through a major recession disguised by our Politicians who send all the unemployed back to School for further education and training to hone up specialist skills to increase their chances of getting a job.

Only two months ago I went to visit students who were displaying their skills at a multimedia display in Perth. They had just completed two years of study in this area at a college. Their display reminded me of little metal bottle tops... lovely images and great technical skills but with little or no commercial application. My heart went out to these students who, at the time, had been launched out into the real world. They no longer had use of the computer equipment or software (their tools of trade) and little prospect of gaining employment.

Multimedia practitioners must be careful not to get wrapped up in their own creativity and brilliance. There is an old saying that the simplest things in life are the best. In multimedia the most successful applications are those that are commercially viable and it just so happens that they are often the simplest.

In the commercial world there is a growing and healthy interest in the new technological advances that multimedia offers. There is also a fair amount of scepticism borne out of misunderstanding and well founded concerns about the speed of advance in this technology. It would appear that every week a newer, better even more incompatible multimedia system evolves leaving last week's technology dead in the water. This coupled with the cost of sophisticated and specialist hardware to drive the expensive software has been a major reason that multimedia has not progressed even faster.

There is no accepted multimedia standard. We have the Amiga, the DOS, CD-I and the Apple systems amongst others shouting their own praises and claiming this title. No wonder the commercial world is confused. I can tell you that I am.

Fortunately, a lot of the shouting is about little metal bottle tops. This make the operation of my business much easier.

From my experience I would now like to share with you some more specific rules of commercial reality:

First I would venture to say that there are two very separate issues that encompass these sets of rules:

We have the issue of commercial viability.

And we have the issue of impact of the finished product on the viewer.

I will first deal with commercial viability:


I have covered portability at length because, like it or not, the IP that is portable will nine times out of ten - in business applications - beat the IP that is not. Remember the best IP is the IP that can be copied to or from a standard DOS compatible floppy disk. With new technology in years to come the whole definition of portability will probably change as more computers are upgraded to accept refinements like CD-ROM disks.


Tied up with portability is the cost factor. Unless you know someone who is about to produce Terminator 3 and you are fortunate enough to have several expensive Iris Indigo hardware systems it is unlikely that you will be able to put the latest modern technology to sound commercial use.

A good example of a cost effective application is the case of the more advanced business which arms their sales force with notebook computers. In this situation the simple IP is an obvious answer with custom written software running from the notebook computer serving all sorts of purposes. (Seen an insurance agent lately?) This marketing tool is further magnified if copies of this promotional program can be left on the prospects computer. The cost advantage of a relatively inexpensive IP offers them a degree of flexibility unmatched by the print media.

Earlier I touched on copyright, a topic that I would like to expand on now. Multimedia software programs are evolving and changing all the time. Some allow free copying of their runtime versions while others build in restrictions built around "site licences". The new benefits they offer mean that even today's finest program will appear very average in a year's time. Bearing this in mind I cannot see the viability of software programs that see site licenses playing an integral part of their revenue earning exercise, neither can I see the large business buying into this expensive argument when other options are available.


Tied up with the issue of portability and cost is the ability to update the IP. How quickly, inexpensively and effectively can new information be added to the IP, existing information be replaced or out of date information be removed? The commercial world cannot afford to wait weeks for these changes to be made. They need to be able to be affected rather in hours than in days.


For the client who is going to be sending the IP through the mail either as a promotional or training support item it is important that the portability of the program does not result in the recipient suffering the frustration of not being able to get the program running. This is common in the situation where the recipient has to unpack the program onto his or her computer. Although the size of computer hard disks is forever increasing it is amazing how quickly they fill up. I have serious misgivings in compacting a program for a client because I know that this action results in a large percentage of his potential market not viewing the disk for this reason alone.

Tricks are neat and should always be used where relevant. However, the most important factor is the ease with which the IP can be used by the viewer. I was told by a friend of an IP placed in a large retail store in the Eastern States. The initial visual impact was great with images flowing across the computer screen expounding the promise that the position of anything in the large store could be found by simply touching the screen.

Well my friend tried and only gave up after half an hour of attempting to find information on the position of the toy department. She told me in anguished tones how even her computer junkie teenage son who had conquered Mario and the Ninja Turtles had been forced to give up in disgust.

On inquiring as to the position of the toy department from an employee who had been watching they discovered that the local shoppers never used the interactive multimedia display as it was too difficult to use... but they kept it because it looked pretty.


Ever received an IP in the mail that is faulty? You know the type that tells you to do one thing and then when you do it... freezes. I have received IPs like this from other companies in the past. This problem is a recurring nightmare that I have. Imagine putting an IP together for a client, getting it copied several thousand times then discovering a major programming error.

This has got to be worse than the daily paper spelling their headline wrong, and it does nothing for a business's reputation. We spend literally hours debugging and debugging the IPs we produce. This form of quality control is an integral part of a business aimed at the commercial world.


One of the lessons I learnt early in life is that in business you trust no one. All our IP products are encrypted to protect my skills and intelligence from being replicated. This, not restricting the copying of the IP, is an important factor in meeting the protection requirements of the business.

We will now look at the issue of impact on the viewer:

Once the commercial issues have been settled and a viable project has been identified the conceptual issue has to be defined within the parameters and limitations of the commercial side. From my experience this can be traumatic as the creative expectations of client and multimedia programmer are often worlds apart even in situations where the most careful discussions on concept have been formalised.

What can and does go wrong, and how can we help overcome the pain?


The dream, idea, plan call it what you will is put to reality and the concept delivered to the client - unfortunately, he or she has had different ideas making what seemed to be an equal of the Mona Lisa suddenly look like little metal bottle tops.

The golden rule, I believe, is to undersell the potential spectrum of conceptual applications available to the client based on the restrictions of commercial reality. Once this easy task has been achieved, as the client should not and will not know the full breadth of multimedia's flexibility, a sample built along these initial lines should be created. The sample should allow for expansion into these further applications at a later stage.

The sample should be demonstrated to the client who will then be able to turn your concept into a working model by making suggestions as to what he would like to see added or changed. This is the time to subtly bring in the potential further applications based around his suggestions and the adapted working sample.

To sum up the concept development, never oversell the client at the initial conceptual stage as he will always want, understandably, the best for his dollar. He deserves it and the best way that you can give it to him is to "undersell" him at this initial stage.


I have dealt at some length with IP concepts as it is critical that the client "be sold" on the idea before you even get to first base. The client will, through his active participation at the sample stage, have been able to ensure that the finished product is acceptable to the viewer.

The viewer might be employees undergoing training, prospective clients viewing product options and related information or, as in the case of Burswood Casino, the IP being used as a directory.

I have reason to believe that the more elaborate multimedia displays with stereophonic sounds and happy smiling images can create just as adverse a reaction if they are "too loud". Interaction with a computer display is, for most people, a highly personal and private experience. They don't want half the milling mass of humanity around them to have a pry into their private inquiry. Large screens with reverberating sounds are a no no in public places... as a large banking group discovered in the Eastern States at the cost of several hundred thousand dollars.

Personally, I believe public multimedia outlets should be highly private affairs allowing the viewer a high degree of privacy as he or she extracts the information they require. The ability to be able to receive a print out of the screen of information requested is a definite bonus and an avenue that we have been investigating at some length.

For example, have you noticed how men and women will quite happily wait in line at the ATM machine? And when they get there the psychology is quite clear... there are the furtive looks to left and to right as the narrow display is adjusted to eyesight and the magic password entered. Now there is an interactive purpose that has to be downright functional but boring... but what opportunities it could present. If only we, in multimedia, took advantage of them. Imagine Mrs Jones deposits $10,000 into her account.. a VGA computer monitor playing some bland bank commercial in the ATM cabinet stops.... Her name flashes on the computer monitor... Mrs Jones.. Mrs Jones.. have you considered our new Fixed Term investment? Please wait while I give you some information. The fascinating sound of the ATM printer's action springs into life (it is an important part of the accepted interaction) and... moments after Mrs Jones is presented with a personalised brochure outlining investment options available to her through the bank.... and that is only the start.


During this conference excellent papers have been delivered on future directions, training, technology and research. There comes a stage, however, where the experts loose track of the rest of the field.. the rest of the field being John Public. This is a complaint often levelled at most well entrenched Politicians.

It comes back to the little metal bottle top syndrome again. What is the use of having the latest technology if it frightens the public or is not what they want or expect. A very large and integral part of IP development should be centred around feedback from the viewer's perspective. Whether he be a trainee or a potential client offer him the opportunity to interact and give his views on what he has seen.

Without this option aren't we defeating the whole purpose of multimedia? Has the viewer viewed the IP for the sensory gratification or to help him in training or to make a decision? If it is the former we might as well display a bunny girl alongside a sporty BMW... if it is the latter then we are achieving good value.

From the feedback I have received relative to the training aspect there would appear to be a growing degree of negativity towards the trend to mark students or trainees on their competency following completion of an IP based question and answer session. A more positive reaction has been received in the area of case study tied training where a typical story line is developed relative to the training with help screens appearing when the student makes the wrong selection. The student then returns to the question until the successful completion of the session results in his comments being requested as to what he would like to see in the training session followed by his comments as to the area where he might like further training face to face with a member of the training staff. This approach is non-threatening and reinforces a positive action by the student in the form of feedback.


When I introduced my topic I spoke of my non-academic background. I also mentioned that the software and hardware used in putting together effective multimedia IPs does not have to be expensive. The business strategies that I have developed have worked. My major areas of business extend from Telecom product promotions to West Australian State Government software support training programs. From small business sectors representing recruitment to clients involved in network selling.

The commercial applications that we formulated have been based on practical marketing experience that was gained through many years in marketing banking products and in the media world.

These experiences and applications have now been taken one stage further and last week on the 20th January 1992 we launched THE OFFICE EMERGENCY DISK. The disk is subscribed to by Perth offices at $25 pa to cover administration and postage with two editions coming out each year with updated office and recreational related information backed by advertising and most importantly by St John Ambulance and their First Aid information.

The information in this electronic publication will fit onto a 360 kB disk which is quite remarkable as it includes the runtime executable file and about 700 interactive text based screens.

This new development represents the philosophies outlined above turning full circle with this business currently working on several projects involved in the practical development of IP based publications. These basic principals include the interest factor, relevance, portability, ease of use, freedom to make as many copies of the disk as you may wish and most important of all feedback from the subscriber. The commercial viability of the project is enforced when the cost factor on a large scale basis of a floppy disk, the copying and compiling costs amount to less than $1.50 per unit.

The successful strategies that will be entrenched by this new business will ensure that the developing publication side initially represented by THE OFFICE EMERGENCY DISK never moves ahead of the needs of the public.

Copies of THE OFFICE EMERGENCY DISK are available free of charge to people attending this paper.

In closing may I say that one day I predict that multimedia publications will see the return of commercially viable poetic verse, and through Interactive Publications I expect that when this advance is reached the full impact of titillating the senses through verse will include the verse that I wrote in the foothills of the Drakensberg.


  1. IP is a trade mark of Interactive Presentations.

Please cite as: Balson, C. S. (1992). Multimedia: How does business define acceptable standards? In Promaco Conventions (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 429-438. Perth, Western Australia, 27-31 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1992/balson.html

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