Monitor Information Systems established its initial interactive multimedia credentials in the design and production of sophisticated education and training programs. The principals of Monitor started with learning packages such as The Aussie Barbie in Australia (designed by myself) and titles in the Talent Series in England (produced by Laura Tricker, Director of Multimedia Production).
Much of the sparse business in high end interactive multimedia for the past three to four years in Australia, however has been in Point of Information (POI) systems and Monitor has moved strongly into this multimedia area.
We feel the lessons we'd learned in education and training (and that seems the purpose of education and training) had prepared us well for POI systems design and production. The most obvious crossover was in the experience gained in the entire process of planning, staging and managing large scale multimedia projects with thousands of media elements and computer logic events.
The initial stage of any project, project definition, has the same imperatives whatever the application - education, training, point of information, point of sales, promotion or presentation. First and foremost the target audience and the project objectives have to be clearly defined. This project definition stage typically takes the team through concept definition and detailed design phases and at completion produces an interactive storyboard, a script and programming specifications. On the way to these deliverables, the team has defined objectives, target audience, concept, metaphor, and detailed design as well as carried out exhaustive content research.
The production stage is again common to any application. This stage takes the project through a pre-production phase involving media resource gathering, copyright clearing and media formatting as well as the standard video or film pre-production processes found in production planning and scheduling.
The next phase of production is the actual recording of the material which would include a large scale drama shoot and/or stills shoots, voice recording and graphics creation. The final phase of production is the editing and mapping for the end storage medium of the media resources.
The software engineering stage includes the creation of the logic, and the integration of the media elements and then onto testing and evaluation. The final stage is the integration of software and hardware into the final system. All these project stages and phases are common to all applications.
I'd like to discuss four POI projects I have designed and co-produced while working with Monitor Information Systems and with its predecessor, Aussie Vision: Computing Careers and their Secrets, Roads to Xanadu, Greenhouse! and Australia Today. I will point out major design and production challenges in these projects and discuss how we met those challenges in our handling of the stages of the projects.
The target audiences for each of these programs were different. Computing Careers was aimed at year ten to twelve students; Roads to Xanadu was for the general public; Greenhouse! was also for the general public but with a slant towards 10 to 15 year olds, and Australia Today was for the Korean general public.
The interface designs were also varied. Computing Careers puts the user into a movie scene making the experience a subjective, face to face one; Xanadu is artistic in appearance while presenting the user an objective explorative experience; Greenhouse! is playful and task oriented; and Australia Today provides direct, no nonsense access to all layers of information.
The production challenges were many and varied. Computing Careers required coming up with a script and video that made computing seem interesting; Xanadu needed massive re-editing and media element documentation; Greenhouse! wanted the generating and combining of graphics and video and the incorporation of a whimsical tone to a serious content area; and Australia Today was a major programming research and development task under the gun of ridiculously short timeline.
Much of the careers information material being published at the time of the project was dry and full of jargon and any video productions were mostly talking heads. We felt that a 'day in the working life' approach encapsulated into dramatic video scenarios would best communicate the human and professional sides of working in this industry.
Over a hundred interviews with computing professionals and an extensive literature search generated the raw material for the categories, topics and program script. A metaphor was decided upon. It was decided the scenarios would be set in a medium sized consultancy company and all the main characters would be employees of the company. Each of the eleven characters stood for a particular job category - Trainee Programmer, Systems Analyst, Operator, Field Support, etc, and we'd set them all in one company so that they might meet and interact naturally so that we could generate action and dialogue.
The metaphor for the computing field was the company and the characters; and the interface metaphor and navigation metaphor was based on windows into the company. The user could touch a window in the company building and fly into the middle of a character's or characters' work day. We felt this metaphor, like all good interface metaphors, served the purposes of facilitating navigation while communicating the image and intent we wanted.
Built into each scenario are one or more 'Secrets'. When a secret is signalled by an indicator on the screen, the user can touch the screen to stop the scene in full flight and then search for the secret. When they touch the correct object they get the character or a fellow worker giving an insight into the pressures and rewards of the job or into why this person is particularly suited to the position.
The Secrets sections further enhanced the human character of the information and expanded on the complexity of any career - the emotional challenges and rewards as well as the intellectual ones.
The research had gathered a lot of career path information and opportunities for vertical and horizontal careers movement were hinted at in some of the scenarios. However, they were mainly contained in a question and answer session with the character, carried out at the end of the scenario. This gives the career opportunities information a personal, almost confidential, feel as well as allowing the user to focus only on that subject.
The program also provides the user an opportunity to look at a variety of actual professionals in job roles similar to the one portrayed by the main characters. This is done with series of stills that we shot at the professionals' workplace. In addition the program contains career path diagrams and information on courses available in particular job categories.
The choice of video and dramatisation to embody the program content meant a commitment to the best production quality. Top class Australian crew and talent were employed and the technical level was always superb. This video footage has served the client well it has been repurposed as a low end HyperCard videodisc program, turned into a linear video and may soon be made into a CD-ROM. Starting with the best quality image insures the best quality product in any form.
The drama brought across not only work roles but the major underlying themes and philosophies of the project: people skills is a prime requisite for success in the industry; women do well in the industry; computing professionals don't sit locked away with their computers; many more skills than just mathematical thinking are need to get ahead in the field; and so on.
The major challenge in this program was to communicate all the themes and explanations in a way that was human and entertaining and to encourage the user to identify with the people, and by inference, the jobs they were doing. The challenge was to create a script that demonstrated some of the excitement, creativity and rewards to be found in computing and that also emphasised that the stereotyped characterisation of the mysterious or nerdy computer guy simply was untrue. That was a big challenge.
John, who also teaches Cognitive Science at the University of New South Wales, felt flustrated with the linear nature of the video and television medium for presenting a large complex body of information. He wanted to make an interactive program out of the material so that the user could have free associative reign over the rich array of video and stills available in the documentary.
Monitor's challenge was to take this high quality material produced for the linear medium of television and translate it into an interactive multimedia program. This meant drawing up topic nodes and rescripting each topic into a self contained chapter.
It also meant making each chapter a digestible length and establishing links between the chapters. It was decided to have illustrated and direct links between chapters. The illustrated links discuss, in a dynamic narrated slide presentation, the relationship between, for example, ceramics and casting or the examination system and the bureaucracy. Photo galleries were then designed to extend and enhance the topic material and to encourage the user to browse through areas of particular interest.
The production challenge was to take hours of material edited for linear presentation and accompanying raw off-takes that were never used on the TV show and to re-edit it all into coherent, self contained modules. Then we had to script and lay down seventy-two minutes of new narration and voice over and collect and shoot 600 stills for the links and galleries. This all had to fit into a design that was obvious and easy to use and had to be completed in four months.
Monitor wanted to get away from the standard iconic interfaces prevalent at that time. The images in the video and stills material were so striking we wanted to base the interface on these images. We wanted menus that were beautiful and provided the maximum impact as memory aids.
We settled on the DVA-4000 as a development and delivery platform. Nothing much had been developed using this board at the time in Australia, but we were excited about its ability to easily construct high quality picture collages by grabbing images from an analogue medium and quickly and easily re-sizing and positioning them.
Up to this time we had been creating menu and other collages in post-production. It was a very costly process involving extremely expensive time on post-production studio digital effects equipment and die resulting collage pressed onto a videodisc wasn't clear or crisp.
We created over a hundred and fifty menu collages for the program. They are composed of upwards of thirty-five elements each and perhaps because they are on very plain backgrounds they have an embedded jewel like quality and do the job of previewing and reminding the user of the information in the program very well. The collages tie it all together both visually and conceptually.
The main program challenge seemed to be to get the subject matter expert committee of environmental scientists to agree on a content script. The next challenge was taking essentially serious information and constructing it into an interactive experience that was educational while still being fun and captivating, particularly for the younger users.
Monitor decided to structure the content into four major modules each having a different approach. The first module explains the greenhouse effect and global warming and encourages exploratory and discovery learning. This module is mainly graphics and animation but also employs illustrative video clips.
The second module uses humorous video sequences to peer into the future and see the consequences of the continuation of global warming. It features the main character talking face to face with her great, great grand-daughter from the mid twenty-first century. This section had to be scripted to be entertaining but to also carry a warning punch without unduly scaring people, particularly the younger users.
The third module uses graphics and animation to help the users draw up their own greenhouse profile. The user gets a chance to figure out how much carbon dioxide they and their families put into the air every week and every year.
The fourth module is a short quiz that uses text and video, to lead users back into the program to explore sections or information they haven't encountered or to revisit modules they may have now been prompted to look at more closely.
Monitor's design and production challenges on Greenhouse! were chiefly to massage the essentially dry information into a more fluid script and design that everyone was happy with. We wanted to get away from a graphic interface that was all boxes and introduce more whimsical design elements to the screen. We also wanted to try to hit the right tone for the younger audience so we brought in a comedy script writer from the 'Hey Dad' television series and employed a comedian as our main character.
We couldn't completely extricate the program from sermonising and there are teeth grinding stretches of warning and qualifying inflicted on the user. Some of these comments play on for up to 30 seconds without an exit button being available. These segments can best be seen as preparing children for the classroom experience or for business meetings in later life. Generally speaking, however, Greenhouse! provides the user with a great deal of navigation and media element control.
We built one more feature into the program to draw in the users. We attached a video camera to the DVA-4000 system and the users are asked to take a picture of themselves when they start the program. They do this by pushing a button on the screen. Their photos are then taken and appear on the screen beside or on certain choices they have made. For example the program collects some demographic information about the users and one of the prompts is, 'Touch the part of the world you live in'. When the users touch a spot on the map of the world their photos appear on that spot.
The program has been very popular with individual users spending up to thirty minutes playing with it.
The main objective was to give Koreans a broad look at the geography, industry, science and people of Australia with a particular emphasis on our achievements in innovation and development in science and technology. The program attempted to dispel the myth that Australia was only a mine and a farm for the world, that we had in fact generated a disproportionately large number of inventions and innovations and had quite a number of Nobel Prize winners in science.
The target audience was the Korean general public in the setting of a crowded and noisy exhibition hall while the emphasis was on the through flow of people traffic. People wouldn't be encouraged to spend more than a minute or two on the program but also wouldn't be discouraged from exploring areas or topics that strike their interest.
The main design challenge was to come up with an interface that allowed the user to go directly from major category selection to the lowest layer of media presentation, the video clips, without going through forced branching and screen changes. We wanted to show all the main options and indicate the choice path a user was presently engaged in on one screen without cluttering it up. We also wanted the user to be able to switch between Korean and English at any time or place in the program.
The production challenge was to get the program together in four months. This meant collecting over a hundred master tapes and numerous stills from organisations and companies around country; scripting and editing all the material together into over a hundred video clips; clearing all the media resources and clearing all transcripts with the companies or organisations (and purchasing some); translating the hour of commentary into Korean and recording the presentations and voice overs with Korean and English speaking presenters.
We realised we didn't have time to do this product in the traditional videodisc format. We simply couldn't spare the time for the standard online and offline editing, the preparation of a master tape and the shipping of that master overseas. We also knew that video material would be trickling in up to the last month and scripts and clearances could hold us up. We decided to go with the relatively untested (in Australia) DVI technology.
The choice of DVI immediately presented all kinds of challenges. Two years ago the editing tools and drivers for DVI were woefully inadequate, We had to import a digital editing system from the United States and beta-test the software for PAL. We also had to write device drivers and numerous other externals in ' C' to simply get the thing going as well as to achieve the functionality we desired.
Monitor's chief software engineer left the office, after months of all-nighters at three am the final morning. He went home to pack and got to the airport at seven for a nine o'clock flight to Korea. In his hand luggage he was carrying two 500 MB hard disks each completely full with the program. We had never seen the program run.
He installed the program on the target workstations and fixed the final bugs as Gareth Evans was walking towards him, launch scissors still hot in his hand. Gareth touched the screen and it ran like a dream and was one of the hits of the exhibition. Ah, the pleasures of small business.
We have recently completed a Japanese version of Australia Today. This involved replacing the Korean presenter, voice over and text with Japanese components and also replacing approximately 25% of the program content. The new content was inserted for the Celebrate Australia exhibition in Japan and further emphasised Australia's achievements in science and technology.
The changes and additions to Australia Today were possible because we had employed the DVI platform.
The programs we are now developing range from an art piece to a customer information system to promotion packages. These programs all have different objectives and target audiences and all have tailored software and hardware approaches.
The interactive multimedia Point of Information system business in Australia is just beginning. The potential is being realised by government organisations and companies and their approach to calling for tenders is becoming more informed and business like. We at Monitor expect this section of the market to grow strongly with particular growth in marketing and promotion applications.
|Author: Herb Peppard, Chief Executive, Monitor Information Systems, 296 Bums Bay Road, Lane Cove NSW 2066. Tel. 02 418 7770 Fax. 02 418 7772
Please cite as: Peppard, H. (1994). The design and production of IMM point of information systems: An Australian portfolio of applications. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 401-405. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/np/peppard.html