multimedia & the Internet experience (1996)

It’s intriguing how fast the Internet ‘baby’ is developing. Less than three years ago, it was babbling words and pictures on the computer screen, trying to grab our attention. Today, with new toys and technologies, World Wide Web developers are teaching their child new skills like dynamic graphics, virtual worlds and musak while we surf. (Roger Frost 1996)

And as we browse the Internet, what were once ‘sites’ where we could shop, play games, and sort-of be entertained, are calling themselves shopping channels, games channels and even Internet radio channels. So maybe this baby is a pretender to the television throne.

What is new are the ‘ActiveX’ technologies now added to Microsoft’s browser software, Internet Explorer. It might sound like something from a soap commercial, but ActiveX is a label for hundreds of software controls or tricks that can be built into Internet pages.

It might seen passe that a ‘ticker-tape’ can scroll across the screen showing todays share prices, or that the pages on a shopping site can be entirely graphical and have hot spots to click on and move within the shop, but these tricks no longer need programming skill to create. What does require skill and is central to online trading, is how using ActiveX controls, a retailer can now provide catalogues, even with price and stock levels, and keep them up to date with minimal work.

Up till now, video and audio content on Internet pages has been sad: we’ve had to wait until the entire file of information was downloaded into the computer, and then hope that the browser program knew how to handle it. In movie terms, that’s a jump cut but now there’s Active Movie. This ActiveX control, allows video or audio streams to play as they are loaded into the computer. So on Cyberville, an Internet Radio ‘station’, we click on whatever type of music we prefer and it simply plays. At modem speeds this is surprisingly acceptable, even if the actual content here will need to improve.

And while video information needs a faster connection such as ISDN to allude to anything watchable, the point to note is that once such technology is in the right hands, we are poised and ready for the ‘b’ word, or that broadband connection that could make the Internet a stronger competitor with regular broadcasting.

Anyone wanting to see ‘3D virtual reality’ working on their humble PC can now click onto the Superscape site and start exploring. For example, there’s a model of England’s Stonehenge tourist attraction to wander around. And yes, this is mere playful material that will sell no plane tickets, but it is surely a taster of things to come.

A clever feature of Internet Explorer is that if a page needs a new ActiveX control, like a 3D VR feature, it will go get it, and install it almost automatically. In due course, perhaps like video effects technology, will increasingly be easier for mere mortals to put effects into their own pages. For most cases they can ‘cut and paste’ some effects from one page to another as they might with text in a word processor. While those after something unique can buy into a growing industry, called ‘component-ware’ which will source and sell new controls – and over the Internet, of course.

While the new look Internet sites are more engaging and interactive, the fact that parents are unhappy about children getting their eyes on unsuitable material is a serious brake on getting the Internet accepted. So in a bid to encourage free speech rather than invite censorship, Web publishers can connect to the Recreational Software Advisory Council pages to get their pages rated for their content. When a web browser, like Internet Explorer or future versions of other browsers, finds the rating, they will check if the parent has allowed access to it. Already France has legislated that all browsers have such self-censoring controls. The RSAC rating questionnaire is worth a look, if only to catch the flavour of censorship, and discover that the ‘buttocks of Chewbacca’ are not, thankfully, a form of nudity. Well now we know.

Compared to the development of broadcast media, from still pictures, to talkies and to wrap-around movie screens, the Internet is a pretty fast mover. The first version of Microsoft’s Internet browser which appeared last summer became version two in just a few months. Today’s version three will be superseded by Christmas when ‘four’, which builds the browser within the computer desktop, is promised.

Changes in Internet technology seems not to follow normal rules with an annual turnaround. It’s not like computer hardware, or software, or even babies. In six months time, that’s about two Internet years, it’ll have moved on again.

Contacts:
Internet Explorer – www.microsoft.com/ie

Internet Radio – www.cyberville.org

Recreational Software Advisory Council – www.rsac.org

3D virtual reality – www.superscape.com

Specialised ActiveX components – www.componentsource.co.uk

Shopping, one of many – shoppersuniverse.com

Roger Frost