Looking and Learning Through Computers

Ben Howell Davis

from EDUCOM Review Magazine, January-February, 1993

The implication of distributed multimedia is an important cultural index. The information age is multi-dimensional and we are confronted with an enormous amount of usable information. If only we had a way to grasp it.

Visual problem solving is nothing new. Cave painting was a means of explaining humanity's relationship to nature. Early map making was the first measure of faith in graphically representing a future destination. Early cuneiform was recorded language on portable clay tablets that made the bearer a transmitter. Distributed multimedia has the potential to make information both portable and accessible.

Distributed Multimedia Visualization

The term "distributed multimedia visualization" is the future of the networked learner. The use of communications technologies and distributed computer networks are the vehicles that will bring interactive multimedia education to distant learners. Increased data rates and higher bandwidth will be the technical innovations of the 1990s. Software development for this type of network is already being prototyped in anticipation of new information markets at MIT, IBM, Digital Equipment, GTE, NTT, and other global computing and communications corporations.

"Virtualizing" the condition of place and object of reference with a computer creates a completely flexible, transmissive model of information. As we add channels of hybrid information like sound, moving imagery, solid modeling, and alternative routes of approach to subject matter, we encounter the problems of the complex design of information conditions.

"Scientific visualization" in computer science has commonly come to mean complex computational models which produce simulation data that require geometrically based algorithms for interpretation. Radio telescopes, for example, scanning the heavens produce more numerical data than can ever be examined point by point so numbers must become pictures.

The term "multimedia visualization" is used to indicate a context for combining graphic, textual, audio, and video representation. This context not only includes scientific visualization information but allows modeling, scientific or other, to be cross-referenced with audio/visual and textual information from other disciplines.

In order to understand and take full advantage of "distributed multimedia visualization," it is critical to begin addressing issues of course design, user interface, conceptual framework, and audience impact now. The sweeping technological advances in learning technologies, now in prototype phase, will be the substantive achievements of the 21st century. The educational equity and access to knowledge this represents is much like the invention of the printing press.

New Initiatives

Since the end of Project Athena in July 1991, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has formed a new Center for Educational Computing Initiatives (CECI) that involves a number of efforts in leading edge technology for education including the AthenaMuse Software Consortium for multimedia development. The AthenaMuse Software Consortium (AMSC) carries forward the work of Project Athena's Visual Computing Group.

After five years (1986-1991) of systems and software research and development on multimedia, the strategy for development of authoring tools has become much clearer. The rationale for creating a multimedia authoring consortium like the AthenaMuse Software Consortium has evolved from some serious revelations:

The AthenaMuse Software Consortium was created to participate in and give credence to these revelations. Corporations and academic research partners will collaborate on a common software strategy that will serve both the immediate needs and long-term vision of an emerging medium, a medium that is only in its earliest stages of conscious design.

The consortium targets near-term, pre- competitive technologies that will enable the delivery of multimedia software. The AMSC will use existing standards when possible and establish new standards when necessary. Working prototypes will be developed that can be widely used and evaluated by MIT and industrial participants rather than a software product in the sense of commercial quality assurance and documentation.

New Research Areas

The research to be undertaken by the consortium will center around four major areas, including authoring environments, multimedia network services, multimedia applications, and connectivity.

The creation of platform-independent, multimedia authoring environments including tools for the C and C++ languages consistent with the X Window System (The X Window System is a trademark of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). This software platform will be portable across diverse hardware architectures subject to the reasonable constraints of the hardware's functionality.

The development of multimedia network services, including the transmission of digital video, the manipulation of remote multimedia databases, and collaborative software editors are primary interests. The AMSC envisions designing and creating both server and client software for such network services.

The creation of a range of exemplar multimedia applications in diverse areas spanning education and industry, and incorporating both reference resources and visualization tools. These applications will enable the consortium to set priorities on enhancements to the multimedia platform that are closely linked to the actual needs of multimedia application developers.

The development of connections to other institutions and universities pursuing initiatives that are focused on near-term solutions to multimedia development is extremely important. The combination of multi-vendor, industrial sponsorship, and ties to major institutions that use multimedia computing as well as our on-going relationships with other universities offer the prospect that the merged effort will create a de facto standard for multimedia computing.

New Projects and Proposals

A variety of projects and proposals are now underway with the Center for Educational Computing Initiatives (CECI) and the AthenaMuse Software Consortium (AMSC) at MIT.

AthenaMuse On-Line Documentation will be a multimedia system for designing, creating, and testing AthenaMuse applications. This project will create a new paradigm in computational documentation by empowering the user to use the documentation not only as training material but as a design "studio" for innovative multimedia applications.

The Rotch Visual Collection at MIT is the visual archive for the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning. This archive is targeted as as a distributed campus resource that will act as an on-line server for digital visual images. The design and development of this "virtual collection" will create a model for subsequent projects that utilize museum materials delivered by networks.

Media Literacy is collaboration with Universida Nacional de Educacion A Distancia (UNED), Madrid, Spain to create a series of multimedia applications for understanding media. These applications, in both English and Spanish, will compare images from international sources and use materials (La imagen) already produced by UNED.The objectives are to value the importance of media literacy in the mass media age, to know the different methodologies for reading and producing images, to value the importance of integrating media literacy into traditional curriculum, and providing basic information on media useful to multimedia application developers.

CECI/AMSC has been working with the Bibliotheque de France, the new national library of France targeted to open in 1995, to explore software for structured access to multimedia materials and to develop multimedia extraction tools for users doing research with the libraries text, visual, and audio collections. This includes proposed software development and on-going discussion projects to bring experts together to analyze the impact and importance of electronic multimedia access to libraries for education and research.

Prototyping is underway for developing an interactive multimedia catalog for portions of the Harvard Collection of Historic Scientific Instruments. The catalog is intended to serve the needs of the curator, scholars, students, and the general public by providing multiple interfaces to and views of the same underlying visual and catalog data.

The Paradox of Women in Developing Countries is a foreign language project in Spanish by the MIT Department of Humanities. The interactive documentary explores the ambiguity of the Miss Universe Contest held in Lima, Peru by contrasting the contestants and promoters of the event with the lives of local Indian women. It critiques the role of the media as well.

The MIT Department of Humanities and the CECI is creating a demonstration research environment for studying texts and performances of Shakespeare's plays. This includes multiple performances with model annotations providing textual, filmic, and performance commentary and interactive lexica of performance and film terms. It will include other cultural views of Shakespeare such as the films of Kuraswa and Roman Polanski.

Project MIT is to develop and implement a comprehensive multimedia archive and presentation tool for MIT's history, achievements, current research, personalities, arts programs, and exemplar educational experiences. The resulting applications created from this electronic archive of film, video, sound, still photographs, text, and graphics would be made available to the Institute community via MITnet and the next generation of multimedia workstations now underdevelopment at CECI. This project is proposed in collaboration with the MIT Museum.

The MIT Museum and CECI/AMSC are collaborating on the cataloging of its collection of historic instruments, architectural renderings, photographic collections, the Hart Nautical Collections, and MIT related documents and memorabilia. The first collection to be prototyped will be the works of Harold "Doc" Edgerton including the films, photographs, and stroboscopic equipment used by Edgerton to explore stop-action photography.

Working with the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering, CECI is collaborating with the MIT Center for Advanced Engineering Studies (CAES) to produce an interactive multimedia program for understanding simple and complex engineering systems and components by documenting the construction of a human-powered hydrofoil. Prototyping has begun with the Musee d'Orsay in Paris on a visual interface for the current text-based system the museum uses to allow visitors to recall selected digital images of the impressionist collections. This interface research is concerned with how museum visitors recall images in the actual collection in order to obtain more information about the works, the artists, and the time period in which objects were created.

CECI has proposed the use of AthenaMuse to produce a multimedia package in real-time by capturing materials from the exchange between the National Gallery in Washington, DC, the Louvre in Paris, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London via the GTE ImageSpan Network by using software templates created for this purpose. This would be the first in a continued association of the MIT Center for Educational Computing Initiatives with the Division of Research on Collections at the National Gallery.

In collaboration with the American University of Beirut, CECI/AMSC is developing a project to build a multimedia atlas on the geography and water resources of Lebanon. The project includes an evaluation of authoring systems for low cost platforms. The finished application will be delivered to students at all educational levels in Lebanon.

CECI has proposed to The New York Times to support a multimedia version of MIT's campus newspaper, TechTalk. This project would address issues of interface design, readability, portability, advertising integration, and the general questions surrounding the digital transmission of multimedia news packages and how the public would relate to newspapers without paper.

A collaborative effort with the Boston Latin High School is underway to transfer knowledge on multimedia technologies and applications. Work includes adapting capabilities of a high- end multimedia network system (university research setting) to a moderately low-end system (high school setting); designing classroom environments in which distributed computer applications are an integral part of the teaching process and analyzing its effects on students and teachers; gaining practical experience in the uses of distributed multimedia applications and collaborative work in a non- technical setting.

CECI/AMSC is collaborating with the Rene Dubos Center for Human Environments in New York City on the design and development of a series of multimedia computer applications to teach environmental literacy. The series will span all major areas of the environment and will be targeted to secondary and elementary students. Each application in the series will incorporate a multimedia version of the Encyclopedia of the Environment being written by the Dubos Center. Staff of the Dubos Center have primary responsibility for the application content while CECI has responsibility for the multimedia implementation.

Dimensional Imagination

The portent of mechanisms like AthenaMuse lie in their extension into not only multimedia organizers and hypermedia linking tools but into collaborative network tools for group design, decision making, and idea formulation that employ media in thought provoking combinations. The old expression "to see what I mean" takes on a profound literal meaning.

As all media move toward the digital state they present new promises and new problems. As video, sound, graphics, and text become equal partners in computer transmission, their collusion will cause difficulties in areas from technical issues of movement and storage to copyright and freedom of expression. As the computer relentlessly continues to integrate technologies and media, creating a condition of continuous hybridization of information, utilities for managing shifting conditions will be paramount.

Reading "distributed multimedia visualization" as "networked dimensional imagination" suggests that the linking of the electronic classroom to the electronic laboratory to the electronic library and museum creates a world of possible new inventions, both literally and figuratively.

The notion of education merging with media is not new but in the digital realm it becomes an economy. What is behind an image will become equally as important as what the next image will be. The linking of images will not only be sequential but will become "nodal". The prospect of "hyper- visualization" is daunting. Interconnected by future "virtual reality" display systems, global multimedia networks create a new dimension of natural, cultural, and economic immersion.


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