Many strands make light work

Multimedia has transformed business presentations by allowing speakers to react to the emotional and intellectual needs of their audience. The only problem is knowing which application to choose.

SBHD: Multimedia has transformed business presentations by allowing speakers to react to the emotional and intellectual needs of their audience. The only problem is knowing which application to choose.

The term multimedia has caused a lot of confusion in recent years because it is difficult to define and there are so many potential applications, pieces of equipment and software.

Put simply, multimedia is the use of a desktop computer (either Macintosh or PC) to bring together text, graphics, scanned images, sound and video. The computer can mix and store each medium, allowing the viewer to choose from a mass of information.

Multimedia was initially successful for specific applications such as point-of-sale, reference, archiving and training. Now the technology is becoming increasingly important for a broad range of communication tasks.

“Two years ago we were monitoring developments in this field. The technology didn’t really offer advantages over existing methods – but that has all changed very quickly. The biggest difference is the development of new software that makes it much more viable to produce bespoke applications and control video images,” says Simon King, director of visual communication at communication consultancy Imagination.

The timing of multimedia’s arrival is good. As King points out: “Multimedia technology completely transforms the form of a presentation. With video and slide projection you can only move backwards and forwards. With multimedia you are able to react to the emotional and intellectual response of your audience as it happens. If a potential client surprises you by showing much greater interest in a particular area of business then you are able to explore that in much greater depth. Likewise, if they’re bored with a particular topic you can move off quickly into another area.”

Recently, Imagination wanted to use video to explain a complex new service for a client in the financial services sector. Because it was essential to produce a programme that could explain the service in detail – and in a short time – it was decided that multimedia was the best way to approach the task.”

A programme was designed for use on standard laptop computers, which could be taken on the road by sales staff, so that Imagination could tailor the presentation to each individual client. Graphics and text were used to introduce the product, and customers influenced the nature of the presentation by indicating their levels of understanding and areas of interest. Appropriate material was then retrieved and discussed.

So far, the majority of multimedia presentations have been made for one-to-one applications. “This is the big growth area because it is where you can get enormous benefits,” says Roger Collins, general manager of multimedia specialist Mediasys.

“The whole ethos is to put control in the hands of the receiver rather than the deliverer. For larger groups it is more difficult because, although it is easy to gauge their interests, if 60 per cent of the group indicate that they want to follow a particular route then you might end up alienating the other 40 per cent,” says Collins.

But giving control to individual users can still present problems. “In a kiosk, or on the Internet, it is very difficult to ensure that you are getting your message across. An impatient user might just `surf’ through the presentation,” says King.

Indeed, the biggest challenge facing those who wish to take advantage of multimedia is not so much coming to terms with the technology as understanding how information can best be handled.

“We spend a lot of time with clients getting them to think in a three-dimensional field,” says Rod Stephens, managing director of multimedia specialist AIM. “Most people are used to briefing agencies to create projects in a linear fashion. Brochures, promotions and advertising campaigns all have a set route, in which a clear single objective is set out and work proceeds to fulfil it.

“Using multimedia, the information can build up to expand on different levels. As a result, we try to get clients to look at a long-term strategy of how they are going to communicate. The first project can then be used as a pathway that leads forward, with information being added and updated in a carefully planned manner,” adds Stephens.

There are, however, technical considerations that need to be addressed if a company decides to take the long-term approach.

One of the biggest difficulties facing those taking the plunge into multimedia is which system to choose. “Companies change daily, so we have to provide a system that can adapt. We need to get the right platform and authoring system to give them confidence in the long term,” says Stephens.

However, no one is sure which systems will be dominant. As King points out: “It’s frustrating that the market has not settled because we have had to invest in a number of systems knowing that some will fall by the wayside. We simply can’t tell a client `here is the definitive solution’. All we can do is say that this will fulfil its objective, and we must move on from there.”

Stephen Brabbins, senior partner of multimedia consultancy Digital Image, says the equipment purchasing policy of many organisations needs to change. “At present, information technology departments are usually responsible for computer purchases in most organisations. They are often geared towards handling data and don’t always fully appreciate the sales and marketing benefits offered by multimedia applications.

“A lot of companies are also playing a `wait and see’ game over which system to go for. It may be true that each year the hardware and software offers more – the same can be said about company cars – but it doesn’t stop people buying current models. Equipment should be looked at on a cost/benefit basis. If this year’s model is going to justify its expense then it is worth buying, even if it means replacing it a year down the line.”

Although nobody is in a position to predict which systems will come to dominate multimedia in the future, the linking of machines has great potential.

The Internet, which allows computers to talk to each other over the telephone system, offers considerable opportunities for multimedia applications. Imagination is going on the Internet this month (February). Those accessing its number will be able to choose which aspects of the company they are interested in. Graphics, photographs and text are displayed as requested.

“All major organisations are going to have to be on the Internet very soon. It provides a low-cost platform to display products, services, case histories and general information about an organisation, which can be accessed by millions of people around the world,” says King.

For those with more specific requirements, On Demand Information (ODI) has pioneered the world’s first “information warehouse” in Leeds. It consists of a large computer system, linked to subscribers’ terminals via integrated service digital network lines (ISDN) – a telephone connection system which allows users to send large amounts of information through standard phone lines. Organisations can log information into the warehouse in the form of data, graphics, sound, photographs and video. High-quality images can then be accessed by users who have a standard PC with an additional graphics and ISDN card (costing less than ú500).

In the retail environment, ODI has provided a trade marketing system where the manufacturer has direct access to retailers.

Using a PC, the retailer can view products, graphics, brochures, videos, updated prices, specifications and promotions – as well as place orders on the system. If there are any queries, the simple press of a button connects the customer to a helpline. An operator will have the same image up on screen and can talk the matter through.

“We did a feasibility study for one client that showed ODI would make a 75 per cent saving on the traditional way they communicate with customers,” says ODI sales and marketing manager Kevin Walsh. “On top of this, they get the major benefit the system offers – very fast, up-to-date information which can be presented in a dynamic manner.”

It is this type of instant access to information and high-quality images that is set to make multimedia the communication tool of the future.

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