A More Animated Web

Multimedia is getting souped up as technical wizards break data barriers

If you can't raise the bridge, the old saying goes, lower the river. The Internet is far too slow for the sort of multimedia content that World Wide Web sites want to create and that consumers seem to enjoy. And the realization has dawned on Web developers that nifty technologies, such as cable modems and high-speed digital phone lines, won't be widely available for several years.

So, to provide rich content at a reasonable speed, the Internet industry is tinkering here and there to soup up the Web, even though few consumers can connect at speeds faster than 28.8 (or soon, 56) kilobits per second. It turns out that the potential for improvement is pretty dramatic.

THE RIGHT TOOLS. One reason the Web performs so poorly is that it has grown so fast. It was only about a year ago that designers realized they could put fancy graphics, animation, and sound on their Web pages. But to do that, they turned to tools designed for other jobs, not optimized for the demands of the Web.

Consider Macromedia's Director, a high-powered package that's something of a standard for the production of CD-ROMs. Web designers wanted to use Director to add multimedia action to their pages, and Macromedia obliged with Shockwave, a software player for browsers. Shockwave revolutionized Web content. You can see samples of Shockwave "movies" at www.macromedia.

com. If you're using Microsoft Internet Explorer, Shockwave (and other players) will install automatically. Netscape Navigator users will have to download the player by following the on-screen instructions. In either case, these Director movies, as the animations are called, can quickly run to a megabyte or more and can take forever to download.

Programmers at a company called FutureWave Software figured out a way to do many of Director's tricks in much shorter transmission time. The secret is that instead of sending bulky copies of images, FutureSplash sends the instructions to recreate the images. And these graphics files are much smaller. One drawback, however, is that the quality isn't quite as good as the best that Director can do. And at least for now, FutureSplash, which has been acquired by Macromedia and renamed Flash, can't add a soundtrack to the images. But the increase in speed is impressive. You can try out Flash at www.futurewave.com.

CHILDREN'S BOOKS. Narrative Communications has a different idea. Its system, called Enliven, takes a Director movie and breaks it into components that can be downloaded as needed by a Windows 95 machine. Instead of waiting for an entire movie to download, at the pace of about 10 minutes per Mb on a 28.8 kbps modem, the action starts in about a minute.

In theory, it's possible to send an entire multimedia CD-ROM over the Web this way, perhaps on a pay-per-view basis. Already, Living Books (www.livingbooks.com) is using Enliven to provide demos of some of its popular children's CD titles, including Arthur's Birthday and Green Eggs and Ham. Another possibility, for better or worse, is much more compelling Web advertising that includes sound and animation. Check out the demonstration Netscape ad at www.narrative.com.

Sound is nice, and animations are cool, but the ultimate goal of the folks creating Web content is to be able to include live video. Sending quality video over the Net is a daunting task. Full-screen, broadcast-grade video needs between 2 Mb and 4 Mb per second of data. Making any sort of video work requires compromises in both the size of the image and the number of frames per second, which determines the smoothness of motion. The broadcast standard is 30 frames in North America, 25 in most of the rest of the world.

Live video won't touch that standard soon, but at least you can now see it on the Internet. The trick was to cram more data through the wires. For example, Progressive Networks' new RealVideo service can move a 160-pixel-by-120-pixel image, about 2 1/4 inches by 1 3/4 inches on a typical monitor, at 8 frames to 10 frames per second at 28.8. You can download a test version of the RealVideo player for Windows 95 or the Macintosh from www.realaudio.com. Even with a 56 kbps modem, a basketball game would be a hopeless blur, though music videos--or a business videoconference--look pretty good. Meanwhile, WebTV Networks has developed a technology called VideoFlash that it says will, when released later this year, allow Sony and Magnavox WebTV browsers to receive live quarter-screen video over 28.8 kbps modems. VideoFlash apparently relies on a proprietary scheme to compress data.

The full potential of the Web, especially for entertainment, won't be realized until networks get dramatically faster. But the multimedia experience is getting a lot better as the technical wizards learn to find a little more room under that low bridge.

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