Media Maker

Rather than let the television and computer industry giants define multimedia standards for the next decade, Dick Phillips decided to do something better. Then he made it free to the public.

A researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL) since 1986, Phillips is best known in the NeXT community for his program MediaView, a system for building and browsing multimedia databases. MediaView breaks down two-dimensional representations of data to appear as pages in a book and lets users create their own path through a multimedia database.

One of the best things about MediaView is that it's free for the asking. You can pick up a copy of it from the Purdue University Internet archive server.

MediaView goes back to the days of NeXT's version 0.8 operating system. Phillips had known Steve Jobs since before the introduction of the Apple Macintosh, when Phillips decided to equip an entire laboratory at the University of Michigan with Lisa computers. One week after the NeXTcube was unveiled, Phillips had one in his office.

Always a programmer at heart, he started to play around with the new machine. The next year he showed MediaView at Siggraph '89 as part of a special technology demonstration sponsored by NeXT. For NeXT, MediaView showed what was possible when high-performance graphics were combined with object-oriented programming.

What Phillips didn't tell the audience about was the nonstandard, special hardware tricks and gimmicks that had been needed to display color images on the NeXT's screen. That would come later.

"This was before the introduction of the ND [NeXTdimension] board," he recalls. Indeed, in some ways the NeXTdimension was designed to run MediaView rather than the other way around. That's because Phillips sat on NeXT's Color Advisory Board Council, where the spe-cifications for the NeXTdimension were formulated. "Our idea was to create a Silicon Graphics workstation on a board," he recalls.

Phillips's work with NeXT fits well with his role at Los Alamos, which he describes as "evaluating new technologies in the computer industry." Before coming to LANL, Phillips spent over two decades at the University of Michigan as a professor of aerospace engineering and computer engineering. It was while he was working on a Ph.D. that Phillips became involved in computing, using an IBM 704 to help write his thesis on the dynamics of electric arcs. It seemed only reasonable to him to demonstrate his results with computer animation. The problem was that the year was 1964 and capabilities to create computer animation were not generally available. He circumvented that by writing data from his simulations on magnetic tape and porting it by hand to a hybrid analog/digital computer with limited plotting capabilities.

Phillips is now working on a slew of MediaView upgrades, including a set of more dynamic multimedia elements. He's also building a conversion program for MediaView, so people outside the NeXT community can view MediaView files.

Phillips believes that since MediaView is free software, it will become a significant force influencing the future of multimedia standards. He points out that many of today's UNIX "standards" became standards, in large part, because software that implemented them was freely available. Indeed, he says, creating a society of free information and resources was the original intention of the Internet.

When he's not programming, Phillips is hard at work crafting words. He's currently working on a computer-graphics textbook for undergraduates, to be published some time in the next year. When that's done, he hopes to publish a MediaView edition of it.

by Greg Burd

Simson L. Garfinkel contributed to this article.