Tech challenges complicate addition of audio to Web sites

Sound-enhanced World Wide Web sites have been on the rise for some time in the commercial world but government sites are just beginning to experiment with sound. And that means coping with a variety of technical and managerial problems not all of them easily solved. "I was actually quite surprised at how much sound was being used [on] federal Web sites. It's certainly not predominant as the form of communication but [it is] present at many [sites] " said Richard Kellett division director for emerging technology at the General Services Administration's Office of Governmentwide Policy. Agencies using at least some sound include the Navy the Department of Housing and Urban Development the Federal Emergency Management Agency and some parts of the White House.

"We believe that sound use is growing exponentially " said Lenny Rosenthal director of marketing for Silicon Graphics Inc.'s Internet Systems Division. "For our WebFORCE MediaBase product 20 percent of the customers are government buyers. Most haven't fully implemented these solutions yet so far it's mostly trials and smaller projects."

Rosenthal said many of these trial proj-ects are for intranet applications where higher-speed networks are available. "For instance someone can record a report and send it over a secure private network to other people within an agency " he explained. Sound is "also being used in some training programs."

Many government insiders see these pioneering efforts as paving the way for full-fledged multimedia sites. One federal Webmaster who requested anonymity said: "HUD is using clips from [Secretary Andrew Cuomo's] speeches [both audio and video]. I loved the video and audio clips of [Cuomo]. I believe HUD's use of digital video and audio will convince the gang where I work that it's acceptable to use emerging technology soon. We're putting use of digital audio and digital video in our Web development plan. The downside will be the budget required for the hardware and software needed for conversion."

To some extent audio can be used as a substitute for video and some experts reason that using sound before jumping into video is a smart strategy like learning to walk before trying to run. And Kellett said today's computers and modems are capable of handling sound so government buyers should be planning for the inevitable.

"Full real-time live-motion video isn't really there but sound is. So you can put up a small picture of someone and a sound clip and that's a reasonable substitute " Kellett said. The bottom line: "Everybody in the federal government should be buying multimedia PCs. That should be a given not an exception. For productivity and making full use of the Internet you really have to be able to have sound " he said.

Still government use of Web sound is mostly experimental hampered by myriad organizational and technological constraints. For instance the Agriculture Department recently considered adding sound to its Web site but decided that the quality of sound it could achieve was inadequate.

"We have a radio service for example that would have been a natural for sound but the quality just wasn't there so we decided not to do it " says Vic Powell Webmaster for the USDA. His comments are similar to those of a Social Security Administration Web technologist who asked not to be identified. "At SSA my organization had some simple sounds on our intranet Web page but removed them. Because the majority of our employees have a standard workstation without any sound cards or speakers [other than the internal one in the workstation] we set our standard not to use it " he said.

Still SSA is not willing to give up on sound entirely.

"Since my division includes doing R&D I have some folks looking at things like continuous speech and automated dictation technology " an unnamed source said. "We are also starting a proof-of-concept project to explore videoconferencing via the Internet/intranet. This will obviously include sound. The big issue at SSA however continues to be bandwidth on our wide-area network and at many of our field offices. Until that gets resolved we are being very careful to keep our Internet/intranet pages to under 100K - sometimes a very difficult job." And server storage is still a problem.

Industry observers also admit that bandwidth to the desktop particularly in the federal government still poses a major challenge to incorporating audio. "It still comes down to bandwidth " said Chris Barker architectural engineer for Microsoft Corp. However Barker pointed to Microsoft's NetShow product as a means of addressing these limitations. "NetShow allows potentially hundreds of thousands of users to listen to a single audio stream coming from a single server. It also uses bandwidth much more efficiently and can be scaled up or down depending on the amount of bandwidth that's available."

Rudy Peksen Netscape product manager for BTG Inc. agreed that bandwidth to the desktop "continues to be the killer."

But Peksen also pointed to a large number of older PCs that still inhabit many office spaces throughout the government. Only "30 to 40 percent of government desktops today have the full multimedia capability necessary to handle these types of applications " he said. That is slowly changing. "One hundred percent of the desktops we're selling today are fully multimedia-capable " Peksen said.

Storage is another problem. "A general rule is that sound files take up 10 times more space than text while video takes up 100 times more than the corresponding text file " Kellett said.

Still Kellett maintains that sound eventually will overcome these obstacles as hardware costs come down. That's why Kellett advised: "The 28.8 kilobits/sec modems do an adequate job with sound but if you're replacing a machine get 56 kilobits/sec."

Standards Issues

Standards also are a problem. Netscape Communications Corp. and Microsoft have extremely rudimentary - and conflicting - player technology built into their browsers but these have not become popular or official standards.

"People usually take one of two approaches " said Harrison Sherwood art director of BTG's Web-content development group. "One is streaming audio and one is to use MIDI files which can be heard on Macintosh computers. The MIDI approach usually sounds a little cheesy."

Actually the capabilities of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) synthesizers can vary widely depending on the type of sound card in a computer and the type of synthesizer used to do what is called wave table synthesis the process by which a sound card pulls pre-recorded sounds from its wave table. With an FM synthesizer the user will hear an approximation of what an instrument or sound should sound like. A wave table synthesizer on the other hand plays an actual digital recording of the sound and provides a much higher degree of accuracy and quality.

To meet the challenge of using multimedia over the Internet Progressive Networks Seattle created the Real-Media Architecture - what the company calls a next-generation platform for streaming multiple data types over the Internet. The firm was also a co-developer along with Netscape of the Real-Time Streaming Protocol which is a proposed standard for the delivery of real-time streaming media.

In the streaming audio market - so-called because the technology does not require users to fully download a sound file before the file starts to play in their browser - Progressive Networks' Real-Audio is the leader. This proprietary technology requires users to download a free Netscape plug-in called a player and use it with their browser to hear the sound. Progressive Networks then makes money by licensing the servers for a given number of simultaneous users. The advantage to streaming is in its ability to perform what can best be described as caching portions of large audio files before beginning to play them. This prevents jerkiness or interruptions in the data stream.

The company said 15 million players have been downloaded so far although it is impossible to tell how many users actually can experience RealAudio sound because many people have downloaded players on multiple machines over time.

"In streaming audio Progressive Networks is definitely the 800-pound gorilla " BTG's Sherwood said. However the company has been working closely with Microsoft on this technology. And Microsoft's next incarnation of Internet Explorer will incorporate its NetShow which according to Barker eventually will read RealAudio.

Still some question remains as to whether federal sites should spend money to add audio to their Web sites. One source said the House Appropriations Committee's site which features an audio clip from its chairman "was not a good expenditure of public funds as far as I'm concerned unless it is specifically tailored to those who are sight-impaired. Even then I'd need to see evidence that it is a reasonable accommodation. I wouldn't necessarily call House Appropriations a `good' site because I'd rather see them serve the testimony and transcripts from their hearings than a sound clip from the chairman."

But despite problems of storage user hardware and software deficiencies bandwidth and lack of standards many people feel that sound is so naturally appealing that it eventually will prevail. "Yes it takes time to download and read sound files and text is more deliberate. But as people we're multimedia creatures. A lot of people prefer the spoken to the written word " Kellett said.

-- Stapleton is a writer and editor who lives in San Jose Calif.

* * * * *

Who's using sound?

The following use sound on their sites:

* The Navy's recruitment site available at www.navyjobs.com uses naval sounds. So does www.ogc.secnav.hq.navy.mil.

* FEMA's News Room section (www.fema.org) has a library of radio news clips.

* GSA's chief information officers site gsa.gov/gsacio/ uses selected sound clips.

* HUD uses sound in several places on its site at www.hud.gov.

* The government-funded National Public Radio has put most of its programs on the Web. The site available at www.npr.org uses Real Audio technology.

* The House Appropriations Committee is serving a sound clip from chairman Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) at www.house.gov/appropriations/.

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