Atari's high flyer had top billing as the first ever personal multimedia system. Andrew Wright enters stage left to look at the claim.Computer manufacturers might be queuing up to get onto the multimedia stage but there's one small problem. Nobody really knows the script — or even what the show is about.
Multimedia means different things to different people; at the home end of the multimedia market it is inextricably associated with CD‑ROM and the so‑called multimedia encyclopedias and interactive education and entertainment titles. At the other end, the business end, are corporate presentations and interactive sales tools.
There's also a big gap between high‑end products with support for digital video and CD‑quality sound, and the low‑end consumer fare that relies purely on a CD‑ROM drive. The audio element of multimedia can range from sampled three‑second drum rolls or fanfares, imaginatively blasting out whenever a new chart or slide appears, to digitised, fully lip‑synchronised speech and specially created background music. It means that the stage is going to be pretty cluttered, if nothing else.
One of the machines waiting in the wings and all dressed up to play its part is Atari's Falcon030. What part that will be is anyone's guess, but with its standard MIDI ports, direct to disk sound sampling hardware, handy ROM port and industry standard SCSI, parallel and serial interfaces, it should have been one of the first to get a curtain call. That it could be the heart of a superb multimedia system there can be little doubt. Even straight out of the box, it has enough links to the outside world to control all the usual accoutrements of multimedia — like CD‑ROM drives, scanners, digitisers and MIDI devices.
All the software props are there too — the secondary but still important applications for image processing, morphing and animation packages, direct to disk samplers and sequencers that are needed to fine‑tune multimedia components. Unfortunately, despite Atari's claims last year that software developers around the world are "rushing to support the world's first personal multimedia system", true multimedia products are only just starting to dribble out.
The first real multimedia tool to appear on the Atari platform was VideoMaster, a budget‑priced package that will digitise motion video, capture colour stills, and even record a simultaneous sound track. The original ST version was also Falcon compatible, but as it could only digitise video with a maximum of 16 greyscales, it hardly did the Falcon any justice. The much enhanced VideoMaster Falcon, now with the ability to sample sound in 16‑bit stereo, has plenty to offer for a package costing under £100.
The VideoMaster hardware is a grey plastic cartridge that plugs into the Falcon's cartridge port. It isn't required for playback, so it won't get in the way of other equipment once the video film and soundtrack have been digitised. It is supplied with all the required leads for audio and video, though for grabbing colour stills special splitter hardware is required (normally £69.95 but £40 if bought with VideoMaster).
The accompanying software lets you edit digitised sequences in all kinds of ways — such as flipping or reversing frames individually or in sequence, or adding or removing frames from other sources (up to 256 colours are supported). TruePaint, a simple painting program, is supplied with the package, and it can be used to alter palettes and overlay text (using outline Speedo format fonts) or graphics.
On the sound side, samples can be loaded in AVR format, the de facto standard on the Atari and one that is supported by most sampling software. A listening feature lets you set the required volume using the waveform display, and once recorded, several basic operations are possible. Left and right markers are used to define parts of the sample which can then be increased or decreased in volume and faded in or out. Parts of samples can be located using the scrub feature, which plays the sound immediately under the mouse when the right marker is dragged along the sample window, and there's a zoom function for fine tuning. Marked parts can be moved too, so while the sound can't be changed in many ways, it is possible to synchronise it quite accurately with a particular video frame by a process of trial and error.
The big problem here is memory, especially if a stereo soundtrack is added. Even on a 4Mb Falcon, the default setup is only 150 frames — just six seconds of full‑motion video at 25 frames a second — and it can only be increased at the expense of the sound buffer. The trick is getting both buffers the right size for the task in hand, but thankfully longer sequences composed of both audio and video can be put together and saved to hard disk.
A player program is provided that will scale the video up to full‑screen mode, though it looks distinctly blocky at this resolution. With a simple control file, created using a text editor, some limited special effects can be introduced at this stage, including split‑screen replay, four identical quarter screens and window within window. Replay at the original resolution is possible too, with the window positioned anywhere on screen. All in all, VideoMaster is an ideal introduction to multimedia and a useful tool for building and testing video ideas before committing to more expensive production methods. Lightweight it might be, but it still puts Video for Windows on the PC — the core element of most multimedia CD‑ROMs — to shame.
Two very much more sophisticated digitisers are available — Compo's Matrix Screeneye and Titan Designs' Exposé (to be released before Christmas) — but neither handles sound directly, so at best they are simply a means to a multimedia end. Chroma Studio 24, a powerful morphing and animation package, has built‑in support for the Exposé digitiser, which can digitise motion video in 16‑ or 24‑bit colour at up to 512 by 512 resolution and at 25 frames a second. Chroma can then use the digitised frames as the basis for morphing or distortion, or edit them in other ways, including altering colour balance, adding scalable text and bitmap graphics, or applying various filters. To take the video concept further, the interface even resembles that of a VCR with fast forward, rewind and play buttons.
It outperforms VideoMaster considerably in terms of memory management and colour depth, running in 16‑bit or 24‑bit colour and storing up to 4,000 frames in memory at once, using delta compression techniques. Unfortunately, there still seems to be a question mark over the release date of Chroma Studio, but Titan Designs are about to release a program which has many of the same capabilities, plus "more features" and a reported 20% increase in speed. Apex Media is slated to sell at £119.95.
The Matrix Screeneye is sold separately or bundled with DA's Picture, a very sophisticated image processing package in the same vein as Adobe Photoshop on the Mac. It has a built‑in digitising module which allows it to grab true colour images from any video source, alter brightness and contrast if necessary, and apply all kinds of filters and editing operations before saving to disk in a special version of the TIFF file format.
The really clever bit is another heavyweight program from the same stable — DA's Vector Professional. This is far more than a superb vector graphics and animation package — it's the core element in the first fully digital video production system for the Atari. Digital video means that the job of creating and editing video frames is done entirely inside the computer. Real film sequences can be digitised, edited to improve quality, and then mixed with computer‑generated animations and overlays of text and graphics, before being saved to a hard disk. As the computer‑generated material is vector based, it is resolution independent and can be output at any desired resolution for professional purposes (studio‑quality video is generally accepted as being 24‑bit colour at 768 by 576 pixels for PAL systems).
The trouble is that all this takes up acres of memory. A single second of studio‑quality video can take up 30Mb of disk space, so a 10‑minute cartoon sequence would require some 18 gigabytes of storage unless some form of compression is used. And it has to be pointed out that DA's Vector won't be running these animations in real time. The demands on the system would be far too high. Even the most powerful desktop machines, like top‑end Macs and Pentium‑based PCs, can't manage motion video at anything like professional resolutions without special hardware such as an MPEG compression card, which can compress motion video by up to 200 times on the fly.
Digital Arts, the German developers, are currently developing various interfaces and software modules to control peripherals such as single‑step video recorders. The aim will be to make the system easily affordable yet still achieve high output quality using bureau‑type services. Even now though, DA's Vector can create vector animations mixed with digitised stills, scanned images or even raytraced files (computer‑generated 3D images) and link each frame to a sound file, again in 16‑bit stereo AVR format.
There are some people in the world who think CD stands for multimedia. Largely they are PC owners, but anything a PC can do, an Atari can do, and the CD‑ROM is no different. The Falcon's SCSI II port will accept any standard SCSI CD‑ROM drive, including the Apple CD300 and Power CD, to name just a couple. There are three or four titles bursting with shareware, but more importantly CD‑ROM opens up access to a whole new world of large 24‑bit images, sound samples and MIDI, MOD and WAV files, all of which can be incorporated in multimedia productions, copyright permitting.
So is the Falcon a likely platform for multimedia? It has to be said that some elements of multimedia will probably pass it by. We certainly won't see catalogues full of CD‑ROM encyclopedias appearing, as the market is too small. The chances of MPEG cards or CD‑I interfaces are remote too, but that still leaves a whole new world waiting to be explored. Given the machine's competence on the sound sampling and editing side, the future for the Falcon looks like being based on cartoon‑style animations and computer‑generated special effects mixed with high‑quality sound and music. It has all the interfaces, it has all the right hardware and the base software is there already. Let's see if it can produce. Enter stage left, anyone?
VideoMaster Falcon £99.95 (£139.95 with colour splitter).
Apex Media £119.95.Exposé digitiser £299.
Matrix Screeneye/DA's Picture £299; DA's Vector Professional £249.