Column: Multimedia rounds on the Net

Most World Wide Web users use the 'canned' capabilities of the browsers Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Explorer. That is to say, we go to a site, open it up, take a quick look, and go somewhere else.

Most World Wide Web users use the "canned" capabilities of the browsers Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Explorer. That is to say, we go to a site, open it up, take a quick look, and go somewhere else. However, we are starting to see more advanced multimedia features on a few local sites and many international sites. These sites require something called "plug-ins" to view (or hear) the content.

Plug-ins are, in effect, specialised applications that add functionality to your Web browser. Plug-ins are relatively simple to download, mostly free, somewhat simple to operate, but more difficult to manage, especially if you have a variety from different vendors. Popular plug-ins include RealAudio, InterVue, Adobe Acrobat and Shockwave. There are also interesting plug-ins for online presentations a la Powerpoint. Some of the more advanced plug-ins incorporate "streaming", which allows the application to run even though the file might still be downloading.

RealAudio (http://www.realaudio.com/) provides the capability to download and listen to audio files. These can be as simple as a flourish when entering a site or as complex as a complete "cybercast" news programme or concert. RealAudio can also be used to add audio to your Web site and Web-based presentations. If you want to download a test plug-in, RealAudio is perhaps the place to start.

A good example of how RealAudio can work is Mark Kennedy's "VoiceWorks" site at http://www.voiceworks.co.nz. Voice-Works is a voiceover company that casts voices for advertisements and radio. As Kennedy says: "Without audio capability, we wouldn't have a site. It is much more cost-effective for us to have audio samples on our site than sending out CDs. We are seeing a steady expansion of our business both here and in Australia that can be directly attributed to our Web site. It's good business."

InterVue (http://www.intervu.com/) allows you to download video clips in the MPEG format. MPEG is a standard video compression method developed by the Motion Picture Experts Group (hence the acronym). MPEG video delivers excellent quality with better compression than other methods. There are two versions of this standard: MPEG-1 and MPEG-2. MPEG-1 is used for computer-based video on the Internet and CD-ROMs, while MPEG-2 is designed for commercial broadcast applications. As with other plug-ins, InterVue also gives you the capability to incorporate video into your site as well.

A good example of a site with MPEG video is the VolcanoCam site at Ruapehu (http://www.pronet.co.nz/ruapehu/), which contains a number of MPEG videos of the volcano from the past few days. These types of multimedia content can really round out a site.

On the downside, downloading video, sound and other specialised multimedia files usually takes a bit of time and uses up a lot of space on your hard drive. This is partially offset by the "streaming" technology. You can view a file while it is downloading and abort if it is not what you want. Just downloading and storing the plug-ins can be costly as well in both time and storage. The Shockwave plug-in alone is a 2.4Mb file.That will cost in access time and download. Plus, if you have a number of plug-ins working with the same file types, there might be a problem with over-riding priorities. It will be a while before any of these type of applications become mainstream.

A good overview of plug-in technology and a selection of plug-ins for download is under HELP/ABOUT PLUG-INS in Netscape itself. Plug-ins seem to be mostly used for entertainment and education, but commercial applications are not far behind.

You don't need to go out and download a bunch of plug-ins today, but you should be aware of them and what they can offer. With the growing emphasis on ActiveX and Java applets, you'll be needing to upgrade in the near future if you want to get the most out of your Internet connection.

(Parent is an Internet education consultant at Creative Data. He can be contacted by email at pjp@iprolink.co.nz or via Creative Data's Web site at http://www.cd.co.nz/cd.)

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