Feds find limited applications for multimedia technology

Multimedia technology - which combines sound video text and graphics - is the engine behind a National Biological Service (NBS) effort to inventory Florida's waning manatee population and the fuel for a new naval doctrine series that incorporates old Hollywood movie footage.

Applications such as these are interesting indeed but the trouble with multimedia especially in the federal government lies in justifying its use. For that reason the technology remains trapped in federal computer-based training (CBT) exercises which supplement the traditional text of a training manual with segments of a training video.

"I strongly believe there is not a point in doing sound and video just to do it. Just because it's glitzy doesn't mean it's always worth it. If there is a point such as to enhance a training exercise fine " said Carolyn Garmise an educational specialist at the Internal Revenue Service's Electronic Performance Support Systems Institute which uses multimedia in training exercises on topics such as "Bribery Awareness."

That constant "why?" plagues multimedia and has even stigmatized the technology which got its start in the entertainment and electronic games industries. For the near future multimedia use in the federal government will be relegated to agency training endeavors and the occasional high-end modeling application or slick presentation project.

The technology's undoing may also be its salvation: Because multimedia is often tapped to hold the attention of the end user some say it will find its way into more mundane applications such as electronic commerce and e-mail. In recent months industry vendors have enhanced their technology to allow users to build applications on the Internet. However broad use of multimedia will occur only after serious bandwidth issues are resolved vendors said.

Mixing Formats

Multimedia means different things to different people but it is traditionally defined as the presentation of information using a mix of formats such as text plus video audio or graphics. "It's less the fact that there is video in an application so much as the fact that there is mixed media and that it is interactive " said Ron Osborn a wildlife biologist for the Interior Department's NBS.

Osborn was instrumental in developing a multimedia application surrounding efforts to preserve the endangered Florida manatee. The project is an example of multimedia use outside of classical training exercises because the agency used the technology to construct an on-line catalog on the endangered animals.

"I was working with researchers studying the manatee in Florida and there was a need to use some better technology to manage a very large slide collection to help identify and track the animals over time and to get information about the population to monitor how that population is doing " he said. Manatees are cataloged by distinguishing marks on their bodies often inflicted by the propellers on motorboats.

Working from the NBS science center in Denver Osborn and his staff five years ago started work on the manatee application continually updating the CD-ROM program which this year will be deployed over the Internet to allow field access to the central repository of images. "We have a collection of documented animals that is about 1 500 a portion of which are known to no longer be alive " he said adding that the nation's manatees now number about 2 000.

Applications such as this indicate that multimedia may break from the training mold by being featured in hybrid programs. The manatee application represents a multimedia hybrid on two fronts because it is a quasi-training exercise that featured mixed methods of distribution.

"I see a lot of potential in distributing multimedia on CD-ROM and using it in hybrid contexts " Osborn said. In fact the government is now investing in ways to marry the Internet and traditional CD-ROM holdings he added.

That's exactly the direction companies specializing in comprehensive multimedia authoring packages are taking. In fact these companies now call themselves by names such as producers of "Internet authoring and developing tools for distributed learning."

An Internet Focus

Tools companies are trying to make greater use of the Internet and the World Wide Web and in the process shake the necessity for programming-intense skills on the part of end users. The net effect they hope will be more large-scale and widespread use of the technology but they too are bound by the bandwidth constraints surrounding electronic distribution of multimedia capabilities especially video. That is the technology's next hurdle because vendors have managed to break the price barrier.

"In the early days of multimedia to buy a multimedia kit users had to make a huge investment in that purchase. Those days are gone " said John Synk national sales manager for Nashua N.H.-based Aimtech Corp. maker of IconAuthor multimedia application development tools. "The bandwidth issue is going to take longer. It is the main thing that is slowing down more widespread deployment of multimedia beyond training."

Aimtech is one of the major companies producing full-blown multimedia authoring packages most prevalent in the federal marketplace. Others in the market include Asymetrix Corp. Bellevue Wash. maker of ToolBook II and Macromedia Inc. which makes Authorware and related products.

Aimtech last month released IconAuthor Net Edition a new version that enables programmers to build training applications that draw content from Web servers as well as traditional CD-ROMs and internal networks.

Upon unveiling Net Edition Aimtech revealed the results of a company survey which showed that 72 percent of corporate training managers deploy CBT applications over an intranet and 50 percent indicated that they will begin relying on the Internet during the next 18 months.

Though the government may be lagging slightly compared with those figures federal multimedia training applications are growing said Macromedia's Dennis Ferrell a product specialist for Authorware. "The government is coming up to speed and it has been typically delivering multimedia capability over [local- and wide-area networks]. Almost all government agencies have adopted CD-ROM and are doing a lot of stuff that way. They are now looking at Web-based training and especially at hybrid applications."

In Authorware 4 Interactive released just two months ago Macromedia has added functionality designed to allow users to integrate Hypertext Markup Language Web pages into existing CD-ROM or Internet applications. The company also has included in the multimedia product suite its Backstage Internet Studio 2 which enables delivery of multimedia and training applications across intranets.

"Now instead of just authoring a training piece and wondering what to do with it we have included delivery tools as well " Ferrell said. Macromedia offers the Authorware 4 suite at the market price of $2 995 but it offers alternate pricing to government users through value-added resellers Government Technology Services Inc. Chantilly Va. Campus Learning Systems Inc. Leesburg Va. and Source Digital Systems Vienna Va.

Asymetrix also is putting its money on growth in on-line multimedia distribution and a move away from the technology's reliance on CD-ROM and the company has reported initial signs of a willingness on the part of the federal government to do the same. Earlier this year Asymetrix introduced ToolBook II Assistant a set of software tools for creating and managing Internet-based training systems by building on program templates rather than writing code.

"On-line training is still pretty new for the government " said Coe Harper an Asymetrix federal sales representative. "But our ToolBook II product is gaining market share and we have probably doubled our revenue in terms of federal sales."

Proactive agencies such as the Energy Department are using the product at central training academies to facilitate on-line course offerings and in the case of DOE those courses are being made available to all government employees. ToolBook II Assistant is slated for release next month and will sell at a list price of $1 995.

Ultimately multimedia technology may break from training constraints simply because the government's definition of training is transforming into a broader field called distance learning.

"Multimedia would be a subset of distance learning " the IRS' Garmise said. "We'd like to move away from training to performance and find ways to eliminate having people just staring [at training programs]. We'd like to instead provide them with pop-up on-line windows to support the tasks they are doing."

A Hard Sell

However beyond the realm of training applications multimedia continues to have limited success in the federal market.

Shawn Presson heads a Navy team dedicated to multimedia applications and he knows firsthand the frustrations involved in selling the government on the technology.

Presson's shop which is nestled within the Naval Computer and Telecommunication Area Master Station Atlantic or NCTAMSLANT in Norfolk Va. got its start in 1990 when now-retired Vice Adm. Jerry O. Tuttle expressed an interest in having multimedia incorporated into Copernicus the Navy's advanced information technology architecture.

From this lofty start however "we got waylaid " Presson said. "We found ourselves in the training arena and that is not where we wanted to be. But for the stuff we were doing we found that training paid the bills."

The kinds of projects Presson and company - NCTAMSLANT's Multimedia Group of which Presson is proj-ect leader - are doing include some sexy subject matter.

For example the group developed a prototype training package on the Tomahawk missile. The group also developed an occupational safety and health instruction system that used 3-D graphics to display the human spine and muscular system.

After most recently working with Turner Broadcasting to get old movie footage that will be used to construct a mixed-media manual on naval doctrine Presson said he has come to believe that preparing training packages is not always boring.

But he still battles the stigma. "Even among my command I would have people say `How is the graphics shop doing?' That is a sure way to get me out of my chair " he said. "I keep pushing the fact that even though it has a pretty face what we do at its core is sophisticated programming."

- Jones is a contributing writer to Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at jjones@fcw.com.

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At A Glance

Status: The use of multimedia technology remains limited primarily to building computer-based training applications.

Issues: Many organizations still do not see the value of incorporating audio and visual information into their applications. Also technical concerns persist about the availability of bandwidth to support such multimedia applications.

Outlook: Unclear. Multimedia vendors continue to enhance their development tools for Internet-based applications but the market beyond training still appears limited.

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