On a PC, on a TV, on a laptop near you

NETWORK The all-singing, all-dancing capabilities of multimedia are tra nsforming everything from education to retailing. George Cole reports on the rise of a multi-billion pound industry
People used to be very rude about multimedia. To some, it was a solution looking for a problem, a technology in search of a market or simply a wheeze created by computer companies to sell more kit. But not any more. Today, multimedia is a multibillion-pound industry that is being used in business, education, training, marketing, retailing, entertainment and many other areas.

Multimedia is used for everything from selling kitchens to helping kids to understand how machines work, and from marketing chocolate bars to helping doctors choose the best medical treatment. It's also used by the police in the fight against crime. Even banks and building societies, well known for their technological conservatism, have embraced multimedia.

Part of the problem is that everyone seems to have their own definition of what multimedia is. But the general view is that multimedia mixes the power of a computer with sound, pictures, moving images, text and data. Many multimedia programs are also interactive, or under the control of the user. Multimedia may be delivered to a home or office on a compact disc or via telephone, cable or soon, even satellite. Multimedia can be used on a PC or a TV, or on a kiosk, console or even on a virtual reality system.

One of the most obvious signs of the rise of multimedia has been the recent transformation of the PC into the multimedia PC (although owners of Apple and Acorn computers say their machines have offered multimedia for many years). With the simple addition of a sound card, speakers and CD-Rom drive, today's PC can talk, sing, shout and display moving pictures. Even video, once considered the final frontier for multimedia, is now standard on most computers in the form of software systems like Apple's QuickTime and Microsoft's Video for Windows. Another video standard, MPeg, offers VHS-quality video and will probably be a standard feature on many new home PCs launched this Christmas.

For many people, CD-Roms are multimedia. There are now more than 13,000 CD-Rom titles, and many of them offer speech, music, animated pictures and other manifestations of the new technology. Prices have fallen so much that some titles are even cheaper than their paper-based versions. More encyclopaedias are now sold on CD-Rom than in book form. And CD-Rom looks set to grow as a new generation of discs, called DVD-Rom, arrives within the next two years. The new discs will offer at least nine times more capacity than today's CD-Roms, allowing multimedia developers to be more creative and use more data-greedy features such as video, sound and photographic images.

What is more, the line between CD-Rom and online systems like the Internet are blurring. Companies such as Microsoft and OmniMedia market hybrid CD-Roms, discs that also contain Web browser software. Anyone with a PC and modem can click on the software and be taken to a Web site to get updated information about the CD-Rom.

By the end of the year, virtually every school in Britain will have at least one CD-Rom drive. Pupils are using CD-Rom encyclopaedias that can bring information to life in a way that no ordinary book can. Instead of simply reading about say, the workings of a nuclear reactor, students can now see animated sequences of the reactor's operations on a PC screen. And a whole new generation of easy-to-use multimedia authoring systems, which require no programming skills, are allowing even primary school children to create their own multimedia presentations on a computer.

In the games market, systems such as Sony's Play Station and Sega's Saturn offer multimedia games featuring video, arcade-style animations and CD- quality sound. Saturn can even play Video CD discs when fitted with a plug-in cartridge. Video CD titles store over an hour of MPeg video, and are used for films and music videos. Another home entertainment system, Philips' CD-i (for interactive), plugs into an ordinary TV and is operated by a remote control handset. CD-i discs can store sound, video, text, graphics and animations, and there are many games and entertainment titles.

But although CD-i has failed to excite consumers, it has done well in professional areas such as sales, marketing and training. The Oxfordshire company Templar Millar has developed a CD-i disc for the drinks giant Seagram. The disc contains information on the company's product range, including pictures and video clips. It's been used in the US to train duty-free staff at airports.

The fact that multimedia systems allow users to train at their own speed is very appealing. If you are using a multimedia training program and you do not understand something, you can retrace your steps or go on to another section for more information. If you are bored with a sequence, you can skip it. In the UK, Vauxhall Motors has a multimedia open learning centre for its 3,700 staff in Luton. A Royal Bank of Scotland program provides multimedia training to 10,000 branch staff using cartoons to make learning fun.

Multimedia is also on the high street. More and more companies are using interactive kiosks operated by touch screen or some other simple-to-use system. The holiday giant Thomas Cook has three interactive kiosks in Cambridge and London, where users can use electronic brochures to find the holiday of their dreams. They can even use a video link to call Thomas Cook's head office in Peterborough to book the holiday.

Financial institutions such as NatWest, Barclays and Nationwide are using interactive kiosks to give customers information about their range of products and services. Multimedia information kiosks can be found in many libraries, galleries and museums. Cleveland constabulary is using a series of multimedia touch-screen kiosks developed by Scala to provide the police and public with information such as local police activities and crime prevention. Multimedia systems that allow consultants to communicate with patients via a video screen have been tested in Wales.

But multimedia is no longer tied to a desktop PC or kiosk. Companies such as IBM, Toshiba, Panasonic market notebook PCs that include a large colour screen, built-in sound card, speakers and CD-Rom drive. The machines are ideal for mobile workers who need to make multimedia presentations, such as sales staff or trainers.

Multimedia is also going down the line. The Internet is moving away from simply being an electronic page on the screen with still pictures and text, to a multimedia system with video, sound and animation. More and more companies are offering interactive Web sites to promote their name or brands (see page 17).

Some multimedia systems are using ISDN digital telephone lines, which are more than twice as fast as the fastest telephone modems. A system developed by On Demand Information (ODI) allows customers to choose a new kitchen. With the aid of a sales person, a kitchen is built up on a PC screen using information downloaded by ISDN. The images are taken from a vast database of kitchen units, tiles, sinks and other items stored on a computer at ODI. Users can choose the colour, type and styles that suit their tastes.

Interactive TV or iTV is also creating a stir. With the aid of a set- top box, users can control what they see and hear on their TV screen. Interactive sets can download movies on demand, and also data, such as computer programs and games. They can also be used for home shopping and banking. Last week, SES, owners of the Astra range of satellites, announced plans to offer a multimedia satellite service. The service will be able to send data in the form of video, sound and text to a home or office PC, and also allow two-way or interactive communication.

And multimedia is going beyond the flat, two-dimensional screen. Systems that use virtual reality or 3D images are emerging, making the multimedia experience even more realistic and engaging. Not bad for a concept that some thought would never find any useful applications.