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2 - My personal experience

This report would be without substance if it were not for an account of my personal experiences in attempting to produce cross platform multimedia. Therefore, this chapter recalls how, in the summer of 1997, I came to design and assemble a CD-ROM disc for inclusion on the front cover of an Acorn computer magazine, and the lessons I learned afterwards.

“Developing multimedia can be like taking a joy ride in a washer/dryer. When it’s all over you feel like you’ve been washed, rinsed, spun, and tumble dried.” (page 413, Vaughn)
Kevin McCarthy, Director of business development, Medius IV

That quote has much truth attached to it, and it was a pity that I learned it long after my experience, as it would have boded me well for the job ahead.

I had volunteered to take responsibility for the design and assembly of the disc soon after starting work experience at Acorn User magazine, within IDG Media’s former UK offices in Cheshire, England (see Figure 4). Editor Steve Turnbull (see Figure 5) gladly let me take on the job, for he had produced the previous two cover CD-ROMs, published yearly as compilations of the best software, images and digital media around for the Acorn computer.

Figure 4 Figure 4

Figure 5 Figure 5

I wanted to design a graphical interface for the disc, so from the outset I suggested the use of the multimedia authoring package HyperStudio, because I was aware of its triple platform capabilities, from both the Acorn press and demonstrations given to me by university lecturers. To this day, HyperStudio is the only Acorn authoring program whose files can be run, with a few alterations, on the PC and Macintosh versions.

Although there are numerous other authoring packages on the Acorn, none of them have versions for both the PC and Macintosh platforms. The industry leader, Macromedia Director is not available for the Acorn platform, but software designed to "play" Director files is available (albeit for version 4 only; the world is on version 8 as of April 2000). The only other possible choice was the webpage language HTML, which was used on the previous cover CD-ROM interface. However, HTML to my mind was not flexible enough and would mean having web browsers for all three platforms on the CD-ROM, which to my mind was an unnecessary waste of space.

Having received permission from the publishers, I received a CD-ROM, containing a demonstration version of Acorn HyperStudio, to include on the cover disc, soon followed by three full copies of the software at my desk (see Figure 6) - one per platform, so that I could test the interface regularly during development.

Figure 6 Figure 6

HyperStudio works on the metaphor of a pile of cards, called a stack (see Figure 7), with the currently viewed card being at the top of the stack. User actions such as clicking an icon would determine which card would next appear on top of this stack.

Figure 7 Figure 7

Being careful with the possible memory limitations of users machines, I divided each stack into themed areas, so that these machines could run them without any trouble (see Appendix C for some screenshots). Furthermore, I downgraded the graphics to a 256 colour palette and a small screen size because, apart from using less memory and being capable of display on small monitors, I also had less of a canvas to paint on. This was advantageous considering the time being spent on correspondence and organisation of the CD-ROMs file directory structure, which could be no more than eight "levels" deep, so as to comply with one of the rules of the ISO 9660 standard for CD-ROMs.

The fact that I hardly tested my interface on the other platforms during production lead to rather dire consequences. Once the stacks were completed I tested them as thoroughly as possible on the Acorn platform, making sure button links worked, graphics lined up perfectly, and so on. It was here that I began the transfer of the stacks to the Macintosh and PC. Supposedly a simple matter of adding a .STK extension to the stack filenames, the software then automatically converted the stack into a file suitable for Mac and PC HyperStudio.

The supplementary documentation mentioned that not all of HyperStudio’s features could transfer successfully between platforms, such as link names, which were duly wiped out. This meant having to relink all my interface buttons again, otherwise they would not function.

I soon hit one of two big problems. On the Acorn version of HyperStudio, file directories could be linked to buttons, so that clicking the button would open a specific directory from the CD. But the Macintosh and PC versions do not have this facility at all. The only solution was to somehow build some executable files to force directories or folders to open. I did not know how to do this, so the interface was now rendered useless!

My next problem caused the Macintosh and PC stacks to fail completely and be subsequently put onto all sellable copies of the CD. The problem concerned that of explicit pathnames (see Figure 8). Explicit pathnames are the full location of a file on a hard disc, including the name of the hard disc. Both platforms rely on them heavily. The Acorn on the other hand, has a wonderful system which uses relative pathnames (see Figure 8), where you can move a set of files to anywhere on a hard disc, as long as the basic structure of the files are left alone, as the name of the hard disc or storage medium is never accounted for.

Figure 8 Figure 8

On the other platforms however, this is not the case. Due to the open nature of the PC, you cannot know for certain whether drive D: is actually the CD drive. It could be drive P, Q or any letter in the alphabet. On the Mac, you can actually give names to your devices, just like on the Acorn, but there the similarity ends.

The theory was that to get the stacks to link properly, they would be burned onto the CD-ROM, then loaded into the relevant versions of HyperStudio, relinked and then saved back onto the CD-ROM. The only problem to this is that it cannot be done. CD-ROMs can only be written to once.

If the stacks are linked from the hard disc, then the name of the hard disc on that particular machine would also be saved. If the files were then burned onto the CD, then upon running them from any other PC, they would try to find the hard drive as explicitly named in its data strings, resulting in file not found errors. I did not want that to happen, so I resorted to hacking the files to force them to link together. But my hackneyed approach only resulted in corrupting the files, making them totally worthless.

From producing this CD-ROM, I learned a lot about the perils of cross-platform multimedia. By not testing the work constantly throughout, you risk hitting a minefield of catastrophes that can make or break your product. Companies such as Anglia Multimedia and Sherston Software have produced their own in-house software to create triple format CD-ROM products, which address the various filing system differences transparently, cutting the time and cost of extensive testing dramatically. I later discovered that Anglia’s software is available commercially, and would have been a viable alternative.

I learned that HyperStudio, despite its many virtues, was not yet advanced enough to be used for authoring CD-ROMs. Macromedia Director, by contrast, provides facilities specific to cross-platform authoring, to help you ascertain, for instance, the pathname of your CD-ROM or hard drive on your PC or Macintosh, so that work can be run without query boxes constantly appearing on the screen.

The CD-ROM was published on the cover of the December 1997 issue, and first released at the Acorn World show in Wembley Conference Centre at the end of October 1997. Despite the problems that reared up at the end, I was very pleased with the end result, considering that it was my first work. It was a good feeling to see my work on shop shelves and at a major exhibition. I took my camera and recorded the moments for posterity (see Figure 9 A and B). From the few comments I have received about the CD-ROM, they have all been positive. Even the developers of HyperStudio admired it.

Figure 9A Figure 9A

Figure 9B Figure 9B

My experience in producing this product gave me a good introduction to the complexities of cross platform multimedia production. It proved that even a commercial authoring tool can find it difficult to cope with the different filing methods that each platform utilises, as well as showing that it was important to test the product on each platform every step of the way.

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