Road to Expo: Multimedia

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Pontis MP3 player

It seems like Macs are becoming more powerful on a daily basis. Multimedia hardware and software applications have always sought to capitalize on the computer's capabilities -- and they're changing accordingly along with the newest, fastest machines. Here's a look at the state of the Macintosh multimedia market leading up to January's Macworld Expo.

Macromedia Flash ( ) has been a major player in the long-format Web animation market since Flash 3. Because they're vector-based, Flash files are small in size. Flash 4 built on that appeal by adding more interactivity options.

Thanks to the ubiquity of the Shockwave Flash Player plug-in and QuickTime's built-in Flash support, Flash files are now common on the Web. With Macromedia's December 15 announcement of an alliance with Liberate Technologies ( ), you may soon see Flash on your television, as well.

Liberate Technologies develops software platforms for set-top boxes that enable interactive television. Liberate has licensed the Flash player and will make it part of the Liberate operating system. (Liberate also plans to write extensions to Macromedia's Dreamweaver HTML editor so developers can use Dreamweaver can create content for set-top boxes.)

Although interactive TV has yet to make much impact, research firm Allied Business Intelligence predicts that there will be 252 million digital set-top boxes in the world by 2004, most of which will be able to view interactive content. That's a lot of potential eyeballs turning Flash's way.

However, the application's dominance may soon be challenged. Internet rumor sites are buzzing with suggestions that Adobe Systems ( ) is in the early stages of constructing a competitor to Flash. If the mysterious application outputs files in the SVG format -- logical since that's a standard championed by Adobe and already approved by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) -- you theoretically wouldn't need any sort of plug-in in order see the files created by such a program. However, you would need a version 5.0 or higher browser -- and those are pretty scarce at the moment.

Totally Hip Software ( ) continues to generate buzz in the world of interactive QuickTime development tools. Totally Hip's LiveStage Professional debuted in November, and this development tool is not for the timid. Its powerful scripting tools explore the outer limits of QuickTime.

At next month's Expo, the company will release a free update to LiveStage Professional. New features pump up the interaction possibilities, including support for wired sprites. When Apple ships QuickTime 4.1, Totally Hip promises to release a version of LiveStage Professional that takes advantage of new capabilities, from movie-within-a-movie to support of synchronized multimedia integrated language (SMIL), the W3C standard for interactive media creation.

With 3-D software, Maxon ( ) is currently putting the finishing touches on their G4-accelerated "Amber" v6.0 upgrade for Cinema 4DXL. Look for another upcoming announcement from them at or before the Expo.

Also, Zaxwerks ( ) will be showing version 2.0 of their 3D Invigorator plug-in for Adobe After Effects. This allows the import of 2D Illustrator artwork to instantly rendered 3-D text, complete with a drag-and-drop materials library, multiple level undoes, hardware-accelerated Open GL previews, and a host of other features.

And on the digital video front, Puffin Designs ( ) will be shipping Commotion v2.2. Puffin claims that the Velocity Engine optimizations in this version make their motion tracker between 3 and 20 times faster.

Although Macworld Expo won't necessarily be the place to announce new products on the MIDI front -- that should happen at the National Association of Music Merchants convention in February -- there are some interesting developments in MIDI. For one thing, the long-standing Opcode Systems (, makers of Studio Vision Pro, Vision DSP, and other products, seems to be on the rocks due to problems with parent company Gibson.

Recent changes in Mac hardware have created a few problems for MIDI users. MIDI has long depended on serial ports for connectivity, and now that standard Mac serial connections have disappeared, companies are making the move to USB. Copy protection, very important in the realm of expensive audio software, has traditionally been controlled by a key diskette. But when Apple said sayonara to the floppy drive, companies had to find other methods, shifting to user-entered key codes that unlock a program on a particular machine.

Also, compatibility with audio hardware and plug-in effects are major focuses of MIDI companies. Nearly every MIDI software company (with the exception of Mark of the Unicorn ) has added ASIO and VST compatibility to their MIDI software. The ASIO standard allows the software to work with PCI digital audio cards such as Digidesign 's ( ) Audiomedia III, and VST is a format for plug-in effects such as reverb, chorus, and delay.

MIDI vendors are also trying to achieve the goal of putting a full-blown recording studio into software -- complete with multiple audio channels, countless MIDI channels, quality effects, and full mixing facilities. They're getting darned close with products such as Digital Performer from Mark of the Unicorn ( ), Cubase VST from Steinberg ( ), Logic Audio from Emagic ( ), and ProTools from DigiDesign.

MidiMan ( ) is also very close to shipping new Mac drivers for the Delta 1010 and Delta 66 hard disk recording cards.

The digital music juggernaut known as MP3 shows no sign of slowing down, companies are making gains at every turn. Casady & Greene 's SoundJam MP has just been revved to version 1.5 (a free upgrade available at ) that brings lots of new features to this powerful player/encoder combo. The encoder now allows for variable bit rate encoding, a "faster encoding" option, and the ability to play songs while converting them. It also includes an automatic batch conversion features that lets you encode entire CD collection relatively quickly -- perfect for putting on your PowerBook or Rio for portability.

Panic ( ) has also updated its $18 MP3 player Audion to version 1.2, which includes net streaming through http proxies, more precise equalization, and better support for Mac OS 9. Audion can also be purchased as a bundle with Proteron's N2MP3 encoder ( ).

At Expo, owners of the new breed of iMacs are finally going to get the chance to see and hear the USB subwoofer designed by Harman Multimedia, a division of Harman Kardon ( ), specifically for them -- the iSub. Although shown as part of Apple's announcement of the new iMacs, this is the first time it will be shown to the public, and we've been assured that it's very close to shipping.

Although they are still only two hardware MP3 players for the Mac, the Rio 500 from Diamond Multimedia ( ) and the recently-renamed Pontis SP503 from Pontis Electronic ( ), the fact that new players are being released for the PC side with USB connectivity means that Mac support is just a driver away. Casady & Greene already supplies the software for the Rio, and says it will support I-Jam Multimedia's yet-to-be-shipped player ( ) and Creative Labs' Nomad ( ) when it is released for the Mac.

Larger capacity memory in the form of Compact Flash types I and II and MultiMediaCards also means these players will be able to hold more than the scant hour or so of music currently available for MP3 junkies.

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