If a picture is worth a thousand words, a digital image can be worth a million bucks. The increased use of digital images in business documents and the emergence of the Web as a communication medium have pushed digital imaging into the mainstream, making it an important selling tool. The immediacy of the Web virtually requires a solution that can deliver high-quality photographic images without the need for time-consuming processing.
Until recently, digital imaging required high-end workstations loaded with memory and storage and expensive digital camera or capture devices. Effective corporate training videos could only be produced in pay-by-the-hour video editing suites. But as low-cost but powerful PCs, digital cameras and scanners proliferate, professional-quality digital imaging has suddenly become affordable. With Firewire and USB interfaces now standard on new PCs, it's become much faster and easier to transfer images from camera to computer to Web site.
Along with rapid price drops on the hardware has come recognition from software companies such as Adobe and Microsoft that business users have different requirements than do professional graphics designers. At the low end, a number of inexpensive (under $100) image editors, such as Kai's Photo Soap 2 from Metacreations and Adobe's own PhotoDeluxe, can turn scanned images into works of art, remove red-eye and correct colors, and prepare them for the Web.
But digital imaging goes far beyond the kind of simple corrections that were once performed in a darkroom. It is possible to create a photographic representation of nearly any desired image, real or imagined. At Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems, Fred Harper, Web Services team lead, is using Adobe Photoshop to conceptualize and visualize new airplane designs. "We take model shots, scan them into the computer, and modify them as needed," he said. "We can show the plane in any environment, change the camouflage scheme, or show how it will look with a particular weapons configuration."
Harper said the rapidly improving picture quality of digital cameras means there is no longer a trade-off between quality and convenience. Cameras with a resolution of two million pixels per image are now standard from manufacturers such as Sony, Canon and Epson and are beginning to rival the quality of analog 35 millimeter and APS cameras.
Because there is no film in the camera, digital cameras must store their images on removable media. Media varies from the familiar floppy disk (used in the Sony Mavica) to Compact Flash and Smart Media cards. While no one standard has yet to dominate, the easy handling, relatively low price and notebook PC compatibility of Compact Flash (CF) cards make for a near-perfect solution for the mobile professional.
There's another way to get your photos into a computer, and it doesn't require a scanner or a digital camera. Kodak Picture CD lets you shoot pictures on traditional 35mm or Advanced Photo System (APS) film and receive a CD containing high-resolution digital images.
The Digital Darkroom
While Photoshop is designed for graphics professionals, business users who have upgraded to the full version of Microsoft's Office 2000 suite can take advantage of an included application called PhotoDraw that offers some surprisingly powerful photo editing capabilities. Another good low-end solution is Adobe PhotoDeluxe, or the stripped down Photoshop LE, both of which come bundled with some scanners.
Adobe, Kodak and others are now making it easier for individuals to share images over the Web. Adobe has even built a Web site for this purpose; Adobe ActiveShare.com and Adobe ActiveShare software provide a hybrid solution that while primarily designed for consumers, can also be used by business professionals who need to produce printed output, photo reprints and gifting.
Make It Move
Gone are the days when producing a video presentation on a computer meant you first had to digitize the analog video source, edit the video on the computer and then output to an analog medium such as VHS tape. Digital camcorders, fast Firewire interfaces and cheap storage mean the video can remain digital through the entire creation process, a big advantage because it can be edited at any time. Digital video editing is "non-destructive," because it's always possible to revert back to the original source material if a mistake is made. And since most video presentations are destined for the Web, the ability to save your presentation as a QuickTime movie is a must. According to Apple, QuickTime accounts for around 57 percent of all video on the Web. The recently released QuickTime 4 is the first version of the software to provide support for real-time streaming.
Software such as Adobe Premiere, Apple Computer's FinalCut Pro and Avid Cinema allow you to assemble multimedia clips, add transitions, special effects and titles, and produce a QuickTime or AVI movie. It's just as easy to bring in and edit video as it is still images, and many of the cameras being sold today allow you to do both.
But how do you get that presentation out to your sales force? Despite increases in bandwidth and storage, video files are still too large to be practical for regular downloads. What's needed is a way to allow a presentation to begin the second the viewer clicks on a play button. With streaming, a video presentation can be played back as it is downloading, allowing for on-demand presentations, corporate training applications and live broadcasts-Xa good way to deliver a presentation to a geographically dispersed sales force. And, unlike traditional broadcasts, these can include interactive elements that literally allow viewers to change course in the middle of a stream. These links can launch other presentations or even direct users to a Web site containing background information.
Nortel Networks, a global supplier of network connectivity products and services, is using streaming media as a connective tissue that brings the executive management, product development teams and sales force together. "If our CEO is giving a keynote at a conference, we'll encode it for later Web cast or even broadcast it live," says Christopher Clement, a Nortel employee whose title is knowledge engineer. Nortel has discovered that the use of streaming media can help lower travel costs and increase teamwork.
RealNetworks has built upon an early lead in streaming media technology to deliver RealSystem G2, an open standards-based system for the broadcast of streaming media over the Internet. The system provides a framework for synchronization and playback of multiple media types, introduces more efficient audio and video compression technology, and provides an intelligent new transport system that adjusts to changing network conditions to deliver more reliable and continuous playback. For those who want to become Web broadcasters, RealSystem G2 includes a streaming media server and tools for encoding files for streaming.
Microsoft has its own entry in the streaming video stakes and as usual, the company has leveraged its dominance in operating systems and application software to provide a compelling solution for corporate customers already standardized on Microsoft software. NetShow offers system-level support for streaming multimedia and, like the RealNetworks offering, is a complete end-to-end solution for streaming video that includes a server, a player and tools for encoding clips and creating streaming content. NetShow is so well integrated into Windows and the Microsoft Office suite of applications that anyone can initiate a videoconference with a few clicks of the mouse. The sever portion of NetShow provides an extension to Windows NT Server that allows it to broadcast both live and on-demand content across the Net. Unique to NetShow is the pay-per-view access model that could be used to conduct online seminars.
Either system's player can be used to play back common media formats such as ASF, AVI, MPEG and QuickTime.
Nortel is also using RealVideo to deliver PowerPoint presentations with synchronized audio over the corporate intranet. Instead of merely posting a presentation to a Web site, Nortel preserves the nuances of the presentation by actually recording it live. "We bring speakers into our lab, where they record it straight into the computer," says Clement. "From there, we turn the slides into JPEGs and marry them with the audio." The company now has over 500 hours of indexed on-demand media stored on its servers.
Pumping Up the Pipeline
A streaming media system must overcome many limitations before it can deliver video clips reliably and effectively. Clement cautions that a fast-moving talk designed to pump up the sales force may not work as well as a simple talking-head video.
The biggest limitation is bandwidth. Although wider pipes are becoming more common, most people will be accessing your content over a dial-up connection of 56 kbps at best. Even worse, there's no way for you to know ahead of time at what speed people will be connecting. Good streaming media software compensates for the differences, delivering a consistent stream of synchronized data. Since network connections are rarely constant, the software must also adjust for changes in network conditions. RealServer does its best to adjust the bit rate to match available bandwidth. Thus, the quality of the clip may suffer, but frames aren't dropped and video playback is smooth.
One of the more interesting uses of streaming video at Nortel is something that Clement calls "product knowledge transfers." He says, "Instead of flying experts around the globe, why not let them give their talk on camera, put it up on the server and let people know it's there," he explains.