REVIEWS

Multimedia Made Easy

MediaStation builds multimedia presentations in a searchable database

by Lee Sherman

MediaStation turns the NeXT into a director's console for producing multimedia presentations. Similar to authoring environments like HyperCard in its capability to merge text, sound, movies, and video into interactive presentations, it goes beyond those programs by storing the information in a searchable, reportable database structure. This form of multimedia database is a natural for providing multi-dimensional access to archives in libraries, museums, and university settings, where it has recently established a foothold.

Though it contains a nice set of formatting tools, MediaStation's primary use is for assembling a presentation from information created in other programs. The program is easy to use, and the results are impressive, though it won't turn you into Steven Spielberg its presentation options are too limited for that. But it goes a long way toward demystifying the complex world of multimedia.

Simple and standard
Like HyperCard on the Macintosh or Toolbook for Windows, MediaStation provides different uses by different users, allowing selective access to browse, edit, presentation, and other modes. The levels of complexity rise with each level of access.

You begin an archive in Format mode, with a nearly empty entry form that is configured with Previous and Next buttons for navigation. You assemble a presentation by dragging fields and buttons from an Item Palette at the top of the screen onto the entry form, resizing them as needed. MediaStation provides separate button types for sound, images, movies, and video, plus three other buttons for playing back a presentation, linking to an archive entry, or launching an external file or application. The default titles on the buttons can be changed to refl ect their contents more specifically.

Once you've decided on the look of your archive, you proceed to Enter mode, in which you enter information into the archive. This is where MediaStation shines. While its tools for working with sound, text, scanned images, and movies are no match for those available in stand-alone programs, they are plentiful and well thought-out.

And if you have more sophisticated editing tools, you can prepare the effects outside the program and import them easily into MediaStation. The program includes direct interfaces to an array of peripheral devices that sample various kinds of data, including Ariel Corporation's Digital Ears and HSD's Scan-X.

If you have a NeXTdimension, you can bring in color, full-motion video sequences. The program also supports industry-standard data formats like TIFF, EPS, ASCII, and RTF, as well as .snd files and WriteNow format. Unfortunately, it's still missing support for MIDI, a standard means of controlling external musical instruments through computers.

Capture or create
You can record voice-quality and CD-quality audio directly from within MediaStation. The program provides controls for recording, setting the recording length, and checking the integrity of the source with on-screen VU meters. MediaStation also supports a comprehensive set of scanning features (their availability depends on the features of your scanner). You can get a quick-and-dirty, low-resolution scan, then zero in on a smaller section to create a high-resolution file. The image can then be rotated, resized, and repositioned from within MediaStation.

Version 2.0's increased support for video makes it ideal for use with a NeXTdimension system. In previous versions, videos were created in the same way as other animation, by entering each frame separately. It is now possible to bring in a video sequence created with Digital Eye or from a NeXTdimension. The images that make up a movie are simply a series of TIFF files run through them slowly and you've got a slide show. The program also supports frame-grabbing from the NeXTdimension video ports, displaying incoming video in real time inside a window. You can control external devices, such as laserdisc players and videotape recorders, from within MediaStation, and you can output presentations directly to videotape.

Manipulating video sequences as easily as you once manipulated text and graphics is a revelation. You can cut, paste, and reposition individual frames and adjust the playback rate for smoother animation. On a multitasking system like the NeXT, playback speed can be affected by other processes running on the machine. MediaStation has addressed this problem in Version 2.0 by introducing new movie types: skip-frame synchronous, which skips frames in order to maintain timing, and speed-up synchronous, which speeds through certain frames. If you prefer, you can opt for nonsynchronous, which will display every frame. The program uses an intuitive filmstrip metaphor that allows you to scroll through an entire movie frame by frame, making adjustments along the way.

Multimedia work is voracious when it comes to memory consumption. Even simple archives quickly swell to many megabytes in size. My swapfile grew by as much as 10MB while I browsed through a typical archive containing sound, 24-bit graphics, and small movies. MediaStation goes some of the way in dealing with this problem, supporting several different compression schemes, including JPEG, and automatically expanding compressed archives upon opening them. MediaStation supports virtual memory, and so the NeXT's mass-storage options, read/write optical disks, 2.88MB fl oppies, large-capacity hard drives, CD-ROM drives, and network file servers can do the rest.

Pulling it together
Once created, files can be added to the archive either by importing them via a menu command or simply dragging them in from the Workspace Manager. Text can be entered in scrolling fields within the archive or brought in from outside. You can attach files to buttons either by importing them via a menu command or again dragging them in from the Workspace Manager.

The gracefulness of the drag-and-drop technique is complicated by the need to first drag files into a buffer. The two-step approach, however, does allow you to preview sounds and graphics before committing them to your presentation; you can even pull off some minor tweaking in this intermediate stage. The buffer can also serve as a temporary storage area where you can experiment without destroying your original.

Using the Presentation Editor, you assign start and end times, measured in seconds, to the various events that make up your presentation. Several events can be played back simultaneously, allowing for some fairly complex animation.

The Presentation Editor generates a script that can be viewed either as text or as a time line similar to that found in MacroMind Director for the Mac. It can't be edited directly, however; changing the script is a matter of revising the archive design.

The direct manipulation of on-screen objects is a satisfying way to work, obviating the need for programming, but it does have its limitations. In HyperCard, the function of a button is dictated by the script contained within it. MediaStation's use of multiple button types is somewhat confusing, but necessary in a program that lacks a scripting capability.

More seriously, MediaStation's lack of a scripting language limits its flexibility considerably, particularly when considered in terms of the NeXT's interapplication communication. Archives produced with the program tend to all look alike, with a set of standard buttons and a scrolling text field dominating the panels.

Tradeoffs
Despite the program's maturity in Version 2.0, a few nagging problems mar the package. Although the consistency of the different modes of the program makes it easy to learn, many aspects of the interface are less than intuitive.

Its graphics controls are decidedly nonstandard and difficult to grasp. In addition, much of the terminology used throughout the program seems unnecessarily arcane, sounding like it was developed by a programmer rather than the artistically inclined, who will be drawn to this program. Commands like "Flip Color Space Value" have no place in a desktop program; "Invert" is the standard term.

MediaStation's manual includes a series of comprehensive tutorials, and the program ships with an excellent demo archive that explains the basics of the program. The manual is also provided on-line in WriteNow format for searching with Digital Librarian. What's there is good, but a complex program such as this would benefit from an interactive on-line help facility one with sound and video.

As a database, MediaStation offers title, text string, and key-word search options on the data included in its archives; keywords for internal files can be assigned by the author. It also provides a full range of report options. The program is fully network-capable, permitting simultaneous access to the same archive, and providing security features in excess of those provided by UNIX. Another advantage to the database approach is that presentations can be reused. You could, for example, create a self-running presentation for one audience and an interactive one for a different audience using the same files.

Despite its interface quirks, MediaStation fills an important role for NeXT software especially with database managers, presentation packages, and authoring environments still in short supply for the platform. MediaStation succeeds in bringing multimedia to the masses. If HyperCube, due from Thoughtful Software in early 1992, arrives as expected, NeXT users should be able to choose between presentation fl exibility and database functionality. Meanwhile, educators, presentation professionals, and artists who require video I/O or need to store vast quantities of multimedia information should be thankful for MediaStation.

Lee Sherman is a writer and NeXT developer specializing in music and multimedia.


MediaStation

3 Cubes

An integrated multimedia database and authoring system that allows you to capture, store, process, organize, and present high-resolution graphics, scanned images, digital audio, video, animation, and text. The program is limited by the lack of a scripting language.

$995 single-user version

Imagine, 32 N. Washington St. #14, Ypsilanti, MI 48197.

313/487-7117.