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Episode 10: Cool Stuff!

Air Date: July 2, 1998


Welcome to the Toronto Fashion Incubator

Mark Schneider catches up with IBM's Tom Vassos at the Toronto Fashion Incubator (TFI). With Susan, Serena, and Crystal off at a fashion conference, Tom is on his own, finishing up some work on advanced Internet technologies-- the cool stuff that makes web sites sizzle. When HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) was first invented many years ago at the CERN laboratories, its primary function was to allow the display of text documents and illustrations on the World Wide Web. Over the years, as computing technologies and the Internet evolved, multimedia features have been added to HTML, allowing the creation of more dynamic web sites featuring animation, full-motion video, sound clips, music, and three-dimensional 'virtual reality'. Though these advanced Internet technologies require a higher level of programming knowledge, they have essentially made the task of image and sound manipulation accessible to anyone with a PC, instead of being relegated to the domain of professionals.


Cool Animation and Sound

Animation and sound can bring a sense of liveliness and excitement to a web site. They can be used to convey concepts and relationships not possible within the confines a text-based web page, and can also entertain. There are many advanced Internet technologies available that can be used to create animation on a web site.

On the low-end of the scale, there are 'server-push scripts' and GIF-89A. Both are frame-based, with each frame of the animation being created on a drawing tool, such as Adobe Photoshop (http://www.adobe.com/prodindex/photoshop/main.html), and then animated with an animation application. In server-push script animation, the series of images are downloaded in succession from the remote web server onto your browser. However, because each separate frame of the animation must be downloaded in succession, the resulting animation is slow and erratic, and creates strain on the server. Another animation technology, called GIF-89A, incorporates the separate frames of the animation into one image, which is downloaded all at once. While this solves some of the drawbacks involved with server-push animations, the resultant animations are 'looping' (a short animation that repeats itself endlessly), they cannot be synchronized to music, and there may be some browsers that do not support its use. But despite these limitations, GIF-89A animation is perhaps the most universal of all Internet animation technologies, without requiring your visitors to have any special plug-ins for their browsers, and requiring less programming knowledge to implement. Another means of creating animation is through the use of Java (more about it later), though the set-up times are long, and they have been known to 'crash' certain browsers. The very high end of Internet animation would be full motion video, which comes as close as possible to 'watching television' on your PC. Unfortunately, these files are often large, resulting in very long download times.

Part of the Crystal Siemen's Collection

A more recent advance in animation has been the advent of 'streaming'. Prior to streaming, the entire animation had to be downloaded before it could be viewed. With streaming, the animation is started while the file is in the process of being downloaded. This way, a constant stream of images is fed to your browser as they are required, cutting down on the front-end waiting period. The most popular example of streaming animation technology would be Shockwave (www.macromedia.com), and you can see examples of it in action at the General Motors (www.gm.com) home page. The use of streaming is not merely confined to animation-- there are audio streaming technologies available, such as RealAudio (www.realaudio.com), which allows for live, real-time audio broadcasts over the Internet, such as the radio simulcast at the Energy 108 web site (www.energy108.ca). VDOLive (www.vdolive.com) incorporates both video and audio streaming for creating Internet multimedia.

The most advanced multimedia cool technology would be VRML, Virtual Reality Modeling Language (home.hiwaay.net/~crispen/vrmlworks/), which allows for the creation of three-dimensional web spaces. However, because of the high bandwidth and computing requirements, there are very limited number of Internet users taking advantage of this cool technology.

Tom demonstrates another advanced animation technology on his laptop-- an Apple Quicktime VR (http://www.apple.com/quicktime/qtvr/index.html) panorama of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. By moving the mouse, Tom is able to pan through three hundred and sixty degrees of motion, which creates the illusion of being there. In actuality, the panorama is comprised of a series of graphical images of the same scene taken at different angles, which cuts down on the memory requirements and download times for handling such an image. The Quicktime VR browser add-on then incorporates them into a single image. With the use of Quicktime VR or the similar Panoramix application from IBM (www.alphaworks.ibm.com/formula.nsf/events/panoramix), it is possible to create three-dimensional views of a product, or a 'virtual reality' tour of your production facilities. With respect to the designers of the TFI, it would be possible to create an image of a fashion model which could be rotated to give a complete picture of a particular design, bring the possibility of a 'virtual fashion show' one step closer.


Java and Applets

Getting away from multimedia, Java (java.sun.com) is a computing language that allows you to create applications, called 'applets', that your visitors can use on their PCs. These applets can run the gamut from stock tickers, to virtual shopping carts (see Episode 9 for more information), to financial calculators, and even create virtual reality panoramic tours (www.royallepage.ca/vr/). For more information, there is a great tutorial at users.neca.com/vmis/java.html and there are hundreds of applets in the Java applet repository at Gamelan (www.developer.com/directories/pages/dir.java.html).


Can Your Web Site Be Too Cool?

Though the use of these cool technologies can make a company's web site a more attractive piece of eye candy, there is also the risk of turning off potential customers. Graphically-intense web sites suffer from long load-times, and the visitor may not have the patience to sit through a marathon load session (for example, it took Tom almost half-an-hour to download the Apple Quicktime VR plug-in for his browser and the San Francisco Bridge landscape). Furthermore, if the web site relies entirely upon the use of graphics, even for the purposes of navigation, there is the danger that visitors without graphics capability on their browsers, or visitors who deliberately turn off the graphics, will see nothing. Finally, the issue of reach is also relevant to the use of cool technologies. As the technological requirements for viewing your content escalates (such as from e-mail to web browser to Shockwave-equipped browser), the potential market size diminishes rapidly-- almost everyone can read a text-based e-mail, whereas only a select few have the bandwidth and computing power to handle something like VRML. A balance between having an attractive web site and having the greatest reach must be found, and that will depend on the capabilities of your target market. But as modem speeds and bandwidth both increase in the future, the use of cool technologies may be more commonplace, and you may choose to implement them as the penetration of these technologies reaches an adequate level. Until then, if you wish to use cool technologies, try to have all your basic information and messages in the most accessible form (such as text), with the cool technologies as embellishment for your more advanced customers.


When is it Cool to be Cool?

So when is it appropriate to use cool technologies? Obviously, if your target markets tend to have a high proportion of high-end computer users, a greater number of your visitors will be able to appreciate all the extra bells and whistles. If 'seeing your product in action' contributes greatly to your customer's decision-making process, such as in the fashion industry, then the use of high-end animation technologies, such as Shockwave and full motion video may be justified. Likewise, if 'hearing the product' is essential to the buying process (for example, if you are selling CDs), the use of RealAudio would be justified. Whatever you do, make sure the use of cool technologies adds value to your customer by conveying concepts or experiences not possible with a text-based web site. The use of cool technologies for the sake of being cool is a lot of effort for very little return, and might frustrate your potential customers by either 'crashing' their browsers, or making them sit through unnecessary downloads.


Hot Links


Want to learn more about the topics covered this week? Then check out these great web sites and resources:


Server-push animation freeware


Tutorials on GIF-89A animation




Apple Quicktime VR download and demos


IBM's Panoramix download and demos




Sites using Shockwave


Hints on adding sound to your web pages




Sites using RealAudio






Sites using Full Motion Video








Royal Lepage Java-based panoramic virtual tours of houses for sale


Java tutorial


Repository of Java applets





Mark Schneider		CTV - Host of "Digital Desktop"
Tom Vassos		IBM e-business Advisor and Host of "This New SoHo"


Production Credits


Al Stevens		Camera
Anthony Leong		Senior Web Editor

All episode summaries and supplemental information written by Anthony Leong, with material and assistance from Tom Vassos, his book Strategic Internet Marketing, and Mark Schneider.

Click here for IBM e-business solutions

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