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|Virtual Environments | Multimedia and the Internet|

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The general movement towards on-line media illustrates the complexity of the paradigm shift in publishing. Given this crisis, and the rapidly changing delivery environment it is necessary to reassess the design constraints and practices of the old technologies, in order to improve the design and production of products so that they can exploit the full potential of non-linear environments.

Towards this end, research is currently underway at the University of Plymouth in collaboration with AA Publishing. The aim of the research is to examine the changing world of publishing as it moves from book to electronic media forms, and from fixed to live and dynamic media.

Firstly, the research methods will be described, the next section reviews some examples of good practice used by a variety of multimedia producers, in particular one company with a wide range of experience of media production and who are currently working for the AA on a series of CD-ROM titles.


Research Methods:

The purpose of the work reported here has been that of a familiarity study in order to map out the territory of the relevant research methods for further work. The methods used provide a picture of both the social and technical activity detected in the design and production of interactive multimedia products. This is achieved by combining theoretical models with systems analysis techniques and ethnographic methods as has been successfully used by Sommerville et al (1992) and Jagodzinski et al (1996).


Systems analysis: documenting the information flow between processes, and between people, using data flow diagrams - a graphical technique that depicts information flow and the transformations that are applied as data moves from input to output (Clifton 1990); task analysis of the human activities to identify and understand the tasks required (Pressman 1992); examination of departmental, project team, and individuals' documentation, notes, and records.

Ethnographic analysis: utilises a set of methods for studying human systems under natural conditions bringing no preconceived notions or structures in order to understand the social context in which activity takes place. This includes: observation, interviews about work and working practices, and generally collecting whatever data is available (Hammersley & Atkinson 1995). This provides an overall picture of the functioning of a department and project teams, and identifies the issues and obstacles to effective management and creative design and development.


Exploratory and Prototyping Production Methods:

Exploratory programming is a recognised method of system production, used when a detailed system specification is difficult to establish. Typically, producing systems where adequacy is a more relevant factor than correctness (Sommerville 1992). Prototyping has many similarities except the prototype system is built and evaluated in order to construct a detailed specification for the full system. Any method used requires considerable planning in order to adequately anticipate problems which may arise throughout the project life-cycle (Vaughan 1994, Canale and Wills 1995, Mok 1996). Using an appropriate and clearly defined production pathway, denoting optimal decision points for change, could greatly increase the effectiveness of product development. Mok 1996 describes his DADI: Definition, Architecture, Design, Implementation process as one such method for creating a suitable framework on which to plan the development of interactive multimedia products. This framework:

1. Defines a project;

2. Creates an architecture that explains the process and, if necessary, the technology platform;

3. Defines who does what;

4. Defines the time frame and budget; and

5. Establishes efficient communication among all the players.

A rigorous approach to this kind of project planning, particularly in the early stages of development is important. One of the key production phases for innovative projects, according to Lawson 1980, is Research and Development. According to idealised models (Vertelney and Booker 1990, Attica 1995, Namuren 1996, England and Finney 1996) this should be performed early on in the project and used to: identify major technical problems, test key aspects of the functionality, and clarify the overall look and feel of the product.

An additional advantage to be gained from using a clearly defined pathway is that everyone is aware of all the stages involved in production and the relevant documentation required. It is essential in such multidisciplinary teams that all staff understand the content and become familiar with the use of these documents. A familiarity with the types of documentation required is also likely to encourage people to revise their own documentation. This type of unintrusive control helps maintain the level of evolution allowed in a project, ensuring all significant changes are formally acknowledged.


Knowledge and Expertise:

Recent research (GISTICS 1995) has shown that buyers are bored with the majority of CD-ROM titles currently available. It is not so much the depth of content which fails to satisfy them, but the lack of creative treatment and interactive richness, coupled with ever increasing market expectations.

'The majority of multimedia titles released so far still tend to suffer from a lack of imagination and the creativity gap, which separates technology's capabilities from the ability of the content providers to create engaging, high value titles. Developers should consider the qualities and potential of the new medium if excellent product and high quality brand image is to be achieved.' (Thorn, 1994).

An imbalance of production and design skills within a team, creates an imbalance in the attention to content, and the attention to treatment and interactivity. More fundamentally, the core of this problem is the lack of a robust visual vocabulary and language for interactive multimedia. It is the inheritance of practice and mindset from traditional media design and production which needs to be addressed in order to bring these ideals to fruition.


Summary of Potential Problems:

Significant imbalance in the range of expertise within a team.

Tendency towards isolated working rather than cohesive project teams.

Lack of close and ongoing managerial involvement with each individual project.

Poor working communications between team members, and between teams and management.

Roles and responsibilities not clearly defined: jobs left unassigned, and job titles not always reflecting work actually performed.

Projects tend to run an inefficient 'evolve-constrain' life-cycle and generally lack focus.

A substantial R&D phase to identify potential problems?

Prototypes require greater technical and user evaluation.

A specified production pathway?

Need to improve understanding and familiarity with all documentation, and maintain strict version control.

Imbalance between attention to content and attention to treatment and interactivity.


Approaches for Change:

This section offers some ideas for potential solutions to the problems identified, and an example methods indicating key phases of work and the relevant documentation pertaining to these phases.



In order to redress the imbalance of skills in a team, recruitment of permanent staff or the use of freelance workers, from a wide variety of backgrounds, might enable teams to be closer to the ideal practice recommended by (Kim 1990, Hoffos et al 1992, England and Finney 1996, Mok 1996, Namuren 1996). Experience in interactivity, audio-visual production, and programming, being especially important.

Studies of interdisciplinary collaboration (Vertelney, Arent and Lieberman 1990, Kim 1990) and interactive media research and developers (Eubank 1996, Freeth 1996) would also suggest that a strong commitment to the cross-training and adaptation of traditional staff would be particularly judicious: interdisciplinary collaboration is most successful when there is a sensitivity and understanding of the other discipline on which to build. This mutual understanding greatly increases the value of expert advice and allows more informed judgements to be made on the team consequences of individuals' actions.

There are a variety of ways this could be achieved, including: sending staff on short courses run commercially, or, holding a series of courses internally. EMG have found it beneficial to periodically run courses in-house for their staff; people employed from a variety of disciplines are able to cross train, achieving a working understanding of different aspects of media production, or to update their knowledge and keep abreast of the newest technological advances. They also encourage staff to give seminars on any relevant new techniques they are working on. This not only extends knowledge but it provides a forum for discussion and improves communication generally.

Whatever the level and range of expertise available to a department, successful projects are produced by teams that work and communicate together effectively (Canale and Wills 1995). Therefore, included below, is an outline of the stages required for the assembly of successful project teams, based on the working practices of EMG (Namuren 1996) and other developers of interactive media (Hoffos et al 1992, England and Finney 1996).

1. In the early stages of the project, before any production work begins, the appropriate roles and skills required should be identified. This assessment must be made according to the nature and style of the particular project being undertaken and used to select a team with the most appropriate blend of skills. For example:

'The content of any one programme will influence the balance of skills on the production team...A highly-visual game packed with original graphics may call for a team of visual designers, plus one good all-rounder to write both the script and program...' (Hoffos et al 1992).

2. When the team members have been identified, each person is assigned a role or roles within the team. Each role has clearly defined responsibilities with areas of collaborative decision making indicated. It is important that this assignment of roles also includes those specialists which may not be required until much later in the project. Their inclusion from the beginning will not only ensure that creative ideas are viable, but will unite the project team very early on. (Namuren 1996).

3. Once assembled, in order to maintain good communications within project teams, it is helpful for team members to be located in close proximity to one another. However, if this is not possible, then it must be ensured that other appropriate forms of communication are made as easy as possible to maintain. The key to successful collaborative working is a contemplative and communication-rich environment (England and Finney 1996).


Project Management:

Project management for multimedia is a particularly complex and time consuming job due to the nature of the products, and the wide range of skills required for product development. In order to maintain focus and adequate control of each project, it may be wise to consider the appointment of a project manager for each project. This will enable the project manager to keep a clear overall view of the design and production, and sufficient time to control the project successfully.

Whichever model of project management is followed, there is some evidence to suggest that the devolution from senior management to project management of a significant level of responsibility is a contributing factor to the success or failure of a project (England and Finney 1996). Many examples of this can be seen: Dorling Kindersley - the editor and designer take the management and ownership of a project, EMG - very early stages led by executive producer, when the style of the product is agreed the project manager/producer takes over responsibility. A final example is Attica, after many months of interviews and analysis of the company, a management consultancy firm identified many of their problems as the direct result of the director retaining too much control (Attica 1995).


Production Pathway:

A well defined production pathway is an essential component of any project as complex as multimedia production. If correctly adhered to, the production pathway will optimise the creation and delivery of the product, without compromising artistic integrity. Indeed, it is hoped that it will strengthen it, by facilitating the realisation of creative ideas. However, it is important that the pathway used is appropriate for the type of product being created and for the environment in which it is being produced. In such a rapidly changing technological environment as interactive multimedia, it is also essential that any pathway is flexible enough to meet unforeseen circumstances and events.

At present, there is no recognised 'best practice' critical pathway for multimedia production. Producer companies tend to follow their traditional production models, with incremental changes being made as and when problems arise. However, these models for design and production are fundamentally constrained by the capabilities and limitations of different and often redundant, technologies and products. This not only affects the efficiency of production but it can also influence the style of products created:

'It is noticeable that most multimedia products bear clearly the fingerprints of the particular trades which have produced them - of television, of book publishing, of database design, etc. - failing often to establish any new aesthetic.' (Boyd Davis 1995).

Whilst we see the convergence of a variety of technologies, we also see the inheritance of practice. However, many argue that what is required, is the ability to respond to these changes and encompass different styles of working, contributing, and communicating, appropriate to the new medium (Oren 1990, Blattner and Dannenberg 1992, Boyd Davis 1995).

Preliminary findings have been used to construct a prototype production pathway. This is largely based on the pathway used by EMG. The prototype is shown highlighting: key stages of design and production, pertinent decision/approval points, and the relevant documentation used.

Perhaps one of the most important aids to successful team working is the strict control and correct use of relevant documentation (Namuren 1996). The correct version of a detailed product definition can help prevent costly and time consuming mistakes being made. In order for these documents to be useful, there must be sufficient information within them, without being so detailed as to be unmanageable. Frequent (but realistic) updates are also desirable as this maintains accuracy and relevance (Sommerville 1992). Documentation is not only a method for disseminating quantities of complex instructions, guidelines, and information for use on a daily basis, it is also invaluable as a record for future projects, upgrades, platform or language versions, or simply a change in project personnel.

Knowledge and Expertise:

Innovative products greatly increase the level of risk inherent in a project, but creative and innovative work is required for high quality multimedia production. Controlled and targeted innovation in projects may be an appropriate way of managing risk whilst consistently improving quality. This could be assisted by the creation of a multiskilled research group to bring new creative ideas to future projects, ideas for innovative and experimental treatments, new technologies, and to keep abreast of relevant current research (Zolli 1996).

In order to achieve and maintain market leader status it is essential to understand the technologies used and their liability to change (Mok 1996).

'Designs that anticipate technological changes before they arrive allow for the seamless integration of new technologies as they emerge. These solutions are "designed forward". Over time, such designs are more consistent for users and more cost effective ...' (Zolli, 1996).

A recent survey of over 7,000 multimedia developers undertook a benchmarking of industry 'best practice'. Using this large survey sample enabled them to identify a very small group of outstanding 'productivity pioneers' and 'profit pacesetters': '...individuals and firms who derive significantly greater benefits from their technology than industry norms...' (GISTICS 1995). The results of their survey led them to formulate a set of management recommendations for investment. Talent, Systems, and Branding, where consistent investment produced consistent productivity gains and technical breakthroughs.




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