Special Report on Multimedia: The need to touch hearts before pockets: Software producers must create interactive products to capture the imagination, writes Tony Feldman

BEFORE the end of the century, multimedia in homes, offices and schools will have transformed our access to all kinds of information. Multimedia hardware has already arrived in a big way.

But even if the markets of the world are being wooed by a growing range of attractive CD-based multimedia platforms, sales will depend on whether there are any multimedia CDs available which people want to buy and use. There have been many barriers hindering the rapid development of a good catalogue of such CDs - the high investment required for fully featured multimedia, uncertainty about the long term market, problems in negotiating rights to suitable underlying intellectual property and the shortage of really effective authoring tools.

There is a single fundamental difficulty that remains even when all the other practical barriers have been swept away. So far, there are few signs that multimedia software producers know how to create interactive products which capture the imaginations of their users.

In other words, while today's multimedia often does a good job of informing us, it rarely moves us. Multimedia improves our minds but fails to touch our hearts. Its success in the long term rests on producing new information media which are every bit as gripping as a bestselling paperback or a blockbuster movie.

The core of the problem seems to lie with the interactivity itself - the very feature of multimedia which is supposed to represent the heart of its unique value to users. There is no doubt that interactivity does offer huge potential benefits - particularly in the way it allows us to gain access to large amounts of information. Indeed, how a user interacts with a multimedia product to search for and correlate information, to choose his or her own preferred pathways, largely defines the experience of using it. If anything is going to breathe life into multimedia every bit as much as the quality of the images, text and sound, it is the design of its underlying interactivity.

There are, of course, times when capturing people's imagination is hardly a priority, After all, when all an information user is concerned with is just getting rapid, accurate access to certain items of information, the qualities which make a particular medium effective are quite different from those which entertain and educate. But multimedia would be probably be a pointless extravagance in such functionally focused applications.

If it has anything worthwhile to offer, multimedia is less to do with bare functionality than with enrichment. There are some types of information access - such as the examination of corporate statistics, for example, or the search for the formal results of scientific research - that are unlikely ever to benefit much from the addition of images or sound. But in education, training, entertainment, leisure and recreation, multimedia should be able to add powerful new values to the underlying information.

Why do today's multimedia products often lack the compelling qualities they so badly need? Why do so few of them move us and make us want to return to them again and again?

Perhaps it would help if we first understood why traditional, linear media are so successful. One reason is obvious. A good book, film or play engages not just our intellect but our imagination. Reading a book or seeing a play is an 'active' experience which comes to life in our minds and lingers long afterwards. What can this tell us about interactive media? You would think that the interactiveness of the media should itself be a positive help in creating the same sense of imaginative involvement.

After all, the very word 'interactivity' implies that the user can participate in an information experience. Unfortunately, it is not so simple. The kind of interactions usually offered by electronic media do not tend to produce the compelling sense of involvement that traditional media offer so readily. On the contrary, instead of giving a feeling of participation, interactivity often fragments the user's experience.

Instead of contributing a spellbinding quality, interactivity interrupts, asks questions or offers choices to which the user must respond. The lack of continuity and the liberty given to the user to choose new directions makes it difficult to maintain an underlying coherence. The user's 'freedom' robs multimedia of the storytelling qualities essential to good communication.

So interactivity - widely regarded as one of the cornerstones of multimedia - may well be one of the most serious barriers to its popular success. Multimedia development, however, is still in the nursery and perhaps we just need a little more time to work out a new creative language, just as writers, dramatists and movie makers have done over the years.

Interactivity may be the key to multimedia's future but perhaps we still need to learn how to use it to produce experiences that enrich the hearts as well as the minds of its users.

Tony Feldman is a strategic consultant and writer specialising in electronic media publishing.

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