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Multimedia: Has it a future in Australia?

Harry Edgar and Tom Docherty
IMAGE Technology Research Group
Curtin University of Technology
Recent improvements in the media integration capability of the personal computer has led to a quiet revolution in opportunities for provision of, and access to, high quality educational, business and information material [1]. This type of interactive media integration has the capability of offering significant advantages in the presentation, evaluation and application of educational and information material, and although being driven strongly by the computer industry, it has yet to gain wide acceptance as an effective knowledge delivery platform in Australia.

The use of multimedia has undergone an unsteady and protracted infancy in Australia and there are still no national strategies to examine the role of interactive media integration in the knowledge acquisition context [2]. Funding for technological and application multimedia development is localised and insufficient, thus failing to provide major involvement in an exciting opportunity to develop a learning environment which is both effective and stimulating. Many potential beneficiaries are as yet unaware of the multimedia legacy which could await them and they continue to operate with lesser tools. Most institutions and corporate bodies are not yet fully conversant with the opportunities (and limitations) afforded by multimedia technology and have made only small forays into what has been perceived as an expensive technological toy.

This paper examines the development of the application of media integration techniques and discusses the response of the Australian educational and business establishment to advances in the technology. Attention is drawn to the many attributes of the application of media integration technology to improve the quality, provision and presentation of knowledge in the educational, business and information sectors. The future of the use of this technology in Australia is reflected upon and potential barriers to its adoption are examined.


Integration of the many facets of media, using a computer to control interaction, is fast becoming an affordable desktop option in a wide range of applications. This integration of media is variously known as Multimedia, Interactive Video, Hypermedia and Computer Based Learning or Training, depending on its use, context and attributes. Advances in computer speed, processing capability, digital data storage capacity and image handling are now providing a basis for the imaginative use of technology in pedagogical and cognitive settings [3].

Media methods have been used for some time to support and enhance the presentation of information and knowledge [4]. These range from text and images in print format, linear video production and computer graphic representation through to computer based or managed learning systems. Evolution of computer technology since the early 1980's has made it possible to advance from slow graphics based media applications to fully integrate those media features, such as animation, video and sound, which make multimedia an attractive option for educational and information purposes. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of these advances is the development of user friendly software and hardware interfaces which increases the user interaction and permits real time access to information b users with no computer knowledge. It is arguable that the very transparency of the technology is its most favourable attribute for the user.

Why multimedia? Why now?

Until recently computers were used primarily for automating manual tasks and for rapid processing of large amounts of data. The information handled by computers was mostly alphanumeric and was only able to be processed and manipulated by professional computer experts. The volume and shelf life of information has changed dramatically to the extent that we now face a virtual information explosion [5]. The dynamic nature and importance of this information means that without continuous rapid access we are often badly informed and consequentially less able to determine priorities and make effective decisions. Without the ability to readily interact with information we cannot build our knowledge and skills appropriately. It is anticipated that the rate of growth of information will continue its upward trend.

Large volumes of information often arise too quickly to assimilate and in the wrong form to interpret or evaluate effectively. This has provided the basis for utilising the information handling capacity of computers as decision making tools. The style and presentation of the resulting output has been limited to text or graphic representation until fairly recently.

In addition, educational courseware can be of an abstract conceptual nature and is therefore difficult to present in an effective manner so that the student can interact and attain mastery. Conventional single medium, non-interactive instructional systems are limited in their capability to provide an environment in which students can explore the subject matter in a way which aids the development of a well rounded understanding [6].

It has been known for some time that different areas of the brain are used for skills acquisition and processing information and can be more effective when presented with appropriate stimuli. The left half of the brain is termed the logic brain and is used primarily for the processing of alphanumeric type information whilst the right half of the brain, known as the art orientated brain, is used to process concepts, pictures and entities.

If used appropriately, multimedia allows us to interface with computer based applications using our more natural information acquisition senses of touch, sight and sound, utilising the right side of the brain in a way which can provide a flexible insight into subject material with the user being interactively involved in the learning process.

There have been problems in providing the computer with the capability to process and display information in such a way as to take advantage of the multifaceted nature of media. Widespread ownership and use of computers coupled with recent developments in computer speed, processing capability and disc storage capacity has elevated media integration to a cost effective and credible option for home, information, business and education use.

The multimedia world

Developments in the multimedia world have been rapid and extraordinary. Progress has occurred at such a rate that new developments arrive at the desktop before the attributes of their predecessors have been fully explored. Earl media integration products, such as IBM's Infowindows [7] were available only in the mid 1980s and in the short period of ten years or so current products from computer companies in the multimedia market place present a bewildering array of options. All the significant computer manufacturers present multimedia products as a major thrust of their business and are surrounded by a plethora of other companies offering add on /build up options to integrate the personal computer into a desktop audiovisual centre.

Most computers can now be enhanced to include full motion video integration, video frame capture and storage, full stereo sound, with graphic and text image development and edit facilities. The colour capability and video quality of most of these computers now approaches broadcast quality, combined with digital image processing capability unheard of only a few years ago. The range of software development and application products has similarly grown and now includes a wide range of educational and information titles. Developer packages are available from a wide range of suppliers to cater to a wide range of skill levels and application types.

The most dramatic recent developments relate to the video handling capability of computer technology now offering digital storage and processing of full motion video utilising hard disc or compact disc. These developments have followed two distinct, but converging solutions. Apple Computers have announced their software solution called "Quicktime", whilst IBM have developed a hardware solution called "Action Media" based on Intel's DVI (Digital Video Interactive). Both systems are capable of displaying full motion video which has been stored in compressed digital form on a hard disc or compact disc. These developments represent probably the largest step forward in multimedia technology for some time and afford a quantum leap in the potential to develop exciting multimedia applications. Equally exciting are developments by Phillips, Commodore, Sony [8] and others with products such as CDI (Compact Disc Interactive) and CDTV. These products are aimed at integrating the personal computer, the television and music/audio facilities into an interactive entertainment, information and educational system.

The type of applications which utilise multimedia is also widening as the technology adds new capabilities. The PM to PM (Presentation Manager to Presentation Manager) package recently announced by IBM, and CoMedian developed by Hewlett Packard are among the leaders launching multimedia onto the business desktop. These packages use multimedia to present a user friendly interface on the business computer to give access to a wide range of application products, such as spreadsheets and word processors, but with the added advantage of real time visual conferencing and data communications via local and wide area networks. The result is an office workstation which is easy to use and can improve administrative and management efficiency.

Further uses of multimedia includes the development of virtual reality and systems modelling techniques to provide such capability as the Surrogate Laboratory and Stereo Video techniques developed at Curtin University of Technology. Implementation of techniques such as this are limited more by the imagination than that of the technology.

Multimedia - attributes and advantages

Multimedia is believed to offer an opportunity, through its varied and mutually supporting learning facilities, to provide an effective and efficient means of improving the quality, delivery and presentation of educational and information material. It is particularly attractive since it integrates the best characteristics of a wide range of approaches to learning and has some significant advantages. These advantages include The application of multimedia in educational institutions, business and information services rely on the capability of the computer to rapidly process and display information in a way in which the technology is transparent to the user. Advances in hardware now make that a realistic option. Operation via a mouse or touch screen with a simple to use software presentation interface enable non-computer literate users to enjoy access to a fascinating world of information, colour and sound. In addition, developer packages are available for which artistic capabilities are more of a requirement than programming skills.

Multimedia -its potential uses and the Australian experience

Although multimedia has the capability of being used as a user friendly front end for almost any computer based application it has been more commonly found in four application areas. These are: Education and training are probably the most common applications of multimedia at present although serious use in the classroom environment in Australia is relatively small. Changes in reactions and attitudes to the learning process will result in a greater demand for multimedia educational packages, but Australian specific creations are emerging only slowly. Developer groups in Australia are only just beginning to expand from early small, localised efforts. A few educational institutions have taken multimedia seriously from the beginning and have included multimedia development as part of their institutional strategies. The majority, whilst allowing embryonic multimedia groups to exist, do not have any significant plans to adopt multimedia in their instructional program.

It is believed that there are many reasons for this, not the least being the perceived investment. Classrooms and lecture theatres are still being constructed which do not have video connections to the video projector, at the front of the theatre. If the theatre has video facilities at all they are of the conventional type in which video tape facilities are at the rear of the theatre.

It appears that designers are not aware of (or are not told about) the requirement to provide for multimedia computer connections. In addition to the considerable effort which is necessary to restructure lecture material for multimedia presentation, difficulties in moving the equipment in and out of lecture venues is an unwelcome task most of us could do without

There is also an added investment required to provide multimedia study facilities in classrooms and libraries but few establishments realise the benefits in increased course options and variety that this could bring Most are also unwilling to commit a large investment until the technological issues are finalised.

The lack of Australian or functionally specific, courseware material is also a major barrier to adoption of multimedia for both education and training. The cost of video disc production is high when video location shooting, scripting, etc is taken into account but little advantage is taken of the opportunity to negotiate with developers world wide to re-purpose existing material.

In many cases the barrier is simply one of critical mass. There is often a common desire to produce multimedia material and there is a common need for the same courseware, with common curriculum development being one obvious motivating factor. Individual groups in Australia may not have sufficient funds, time, facilities or skills to tackle the task properly. There is a clear need for cooperative development based on a common strategy funded from federal sources.

There are many opportunities for multimedia in Point of Sale and Point of Information applications. The professional presentation of information in the tourism, banking and department store industries, for example, provides the opportunity to provide the user with up to date information in a way which enhances the service being offered. There are not many of these sectors in Australia availing themselves of the multimedia option. One can speculate on the reasons for this. It may be that the information is dynamic, and costs of updating are prohibitive, or that the initial investment is too high. It appears that it is more likely that they are unaware of the potential uses and advantages because there are too few groups in Australia with the capability or desire to develop and sell this option.

Perhaps the most enlightened users of Point of Information multimedia are the libraries in the University sector. Many libraries now have at least a CD-ROM based information system covering not only book search information but visual and audio databases too. This is probably the first encounter most students will have with multimedia technology. Lack of funding is clearly the biggest barrier to multimedia implementation in these areas.

The business desktop is probably the least area of use for multimedia in Australia, yet it is potentially one of the most lucrative and fertile areas for development. Most Australian industries are fairly well equipped with computer technology at a desktop level and are often sufficiently well networked to take advantage of central multimedia applications. The opportunities for improvements in professional up to date information services are self evident. This is further enhanced by the opportunity to provide at the desk training which would reduce training costs and improve efficiency. The technological capability to enable this to happen is now available and awaits the opportunity to be applied.


Multimedia has wide application to a multifaceted problem and consequentially involves a wide range of skills in its development and application. The range of skills required for multimedia production extends from the educational planners through courseware developers, cognitive scientists, hardware and software developers, curriculum designers, educators and end users. Australia has an emerging research and development base but application creators are slow to appear. There is a need to develop and maintain the skill base in research and development into multimedia technology, in addition to its implementation and application.

Successful use of multimedia in an educational or information environment depends on the construction of a suitable interface between the machine information and the characteristics of human processing and cognition. In order to apply the technology effectively it is necessary to understand the reaction of the user to both the subject matter and the presentation. Clearly an investigation is required which focuses on the effectiveness in the way instructional strategies match the learning requirements. A possible outcome of this evaluation process would be the establishment of guidelines for the future development of resources to ensure that multimedia applications are educationally effective. This is more critical now that development platforms are available which allow the subject specialist to create educational and information packages without any constraint on appropriate learning or search strategies.

Research and development into multimedia applications, the technology and educational strategies in Australia is of an extremely high quality and is comparable to that of anywhere in the world. It is therefore important that funding for this research is maintained and managed at a level which will enable Australian developers to remain as significant pioneers in this field. The role of the major computer companies, in supporting development groups in Australia is particularly important This provides a means for these groups to have access to state of the art technology, as formal release of new developments in Australia is often a long time after that in the UK and USA. Collaboration with these companies aids the move towards standardisation of products and improves the portability of applications between platforms. Research into the development of standards in video compression [9] is supported in Australian institutions and complements the work of these major computer companies.

Multimedia, in its many forms has an important role to play in Australia. The barriers are mainly those of funding, and lack of awareness on the part of the planners and potential users. There is a definite need to coordinate skills and resources to maximise the skill base emerging in Australia and to provide a basis for the management of the multimedia culture. It is essential therefore that institutions and corporate bodies include application of the technology in their long term strategies in order to utilise multimedia effectively.

Fortunately, acceptance of multimedia technology is still in its infancy in Australia and the opportunity remains to ensure that its development is managed to ensure an infrastructure which will guarantee sustained growth of the multimedia resource.


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  2. A National Agenda (1986). Proceedings of the National Videodisc Symposium for Education, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 12-14 Nov.

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  8. Sony (1990). Sony shows portable CD-I machine. The Videodisc Monitor, 8(11, November), 1-3.

  9. Edgar, T. H. and Steffen, C. V. (1991). Image and Video Coding Standards and their Implementation. Apple Users Conference June 1991.

Authors: Dr. T. H. Edgar and Mr. T. M. Docherty
IMAGE Technology Research Group
School of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Curtin University of Technology
Perth 6001

Please cite as: Edgar, T. H. and Docherty, T. M. (1992). Multimedia: Has it a future in Australia? In Promaco Conventions (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 565-571. Perth, Western Australia, 27-31 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1992/edgar2.html

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