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Managing multimedia assets: evaluating the options

As enterprises continue the push toward greater efficiency and productivity, one set of information they may re-evaluate is their collection of multimedia assets.

Three approaches to getting multimedia assets organized and accessible are: multimedia libraries built into authoring tools, freestanding multimedia databases and custom databases.

In one respect, the concept of a "multimedia database" is misleading. Generally, the database contains metadata and a pointer that indicates the location of the data element, but not the multimedia element itself. Sorting is done on keywords, dates, file size and other metadata that is contained in the database. Given the large size of multimedia elements, particularly video files, storing them in the database is not feasible. Therefore the database functions as a searchable index to the files.

When multimedia files are imported or cataloged in a database, some of the metadata is captured automatically. Standard labels for metadata referred to as the Dublin Core have been proposed by a working group at the Online Computer Library Center in Dublin, OH. Those include file type, file size and other basic information. Additional metadata such as keywords can be entered by the user. Some multimedia databases also generate a scaled-down version of graphics called a "thumbnail" that is stored in the database itself. Most of the multimedia asset management products have a viewer that allows graphics and text to be seen without launching the application that originated the data.

Multimedia authoring packages

If any company would have its multimedia assets organized, surely it would be a multimedia development company, right? Not necessarily. Given the nature of multimedia projects, which are often done under intense pressure, allocating time at the beginning to establish a system and explain it to everyone can be difficult. And by the end of the project, with multimedia data elements in disarray and another job looming, the likelihood of spending the time can be even smaller.

Some of the desktop development products, which were not designed for collaborative work, tend to foster an individualistic approach in which graphics people put the graphics on their local hard drives and then integrate them once the coding is done. While that tendency can be overcome by a well-thought-out system of subdirectories and file naming, authoring tools that are designed for collaborative use have an advantage when it comes to helping developers establish and use a centralized multimedia database.

For example, Quest Net+, an authoring tool from Allen Communication (www.allencomm.com) often used in designing computer-based training (CBT) products, uses FastTracks Librarian to catalog multimedia assets. The product can be called up from within the Quest interface but also is a separate application. Thumbnails of the graphics are provided, and other elements have a generic visual indicator of file type, such as a musical note for an audio file.

From the viewpoint of reusing multimedia elements, it helps if the authoring tool maintains the files outside the executable file for the CBT program. Some authoring tools import the graphics files into the executable (.exe) file for the project, which means that the executable must be recompiled whenever a graphic is changed. Quest maintains the multimedia files outside the title, which has some advantages in terms of modifiability of the files as well as in performance.

FastTracks Librarian can store not only multimedia assets but also logic paths and portions of the design that can be reused in other projects. "This capability greatly increases the efficiency of developing future CBT products, because the elements can be recycled," said Allen's Carl Miner, director of product management. Future versions of Quest will allow files to be dragged directly from Windows Explorer into FastTracks Librarian. Another future feature is the ability to develop Quest products over the Web. At present, titles can be run over the Web, but online development and access to multimedia libraries is not yet possible.

At the very high end, Nereus from Vicom (www.vicom.ca) has an asset management component that stores metadata as each file is brought into the database. Nereus is used primarily by large companies for developing in-house training or by CBT publishers. In either case, there are significant advantages to being able to find and reuse multimedia assets. The query capability in the Nereus Asset Manager is powerful and easy to use; for example, users can bring up all .avi video files, or any files that have certain keywords associated with them, or files of a certain size. Text file descriptions can be written to any length the user wishes, allowing further query options.

An unlimited number of index folders can be developed by each user to serve as indexes for searching. "In the case of a physics education CBT product for the government of Alberta," said Nereus product manager Scott Henderson, "the project manager created a folder called 'graphics that need to be fixed.' The graphics designers could come in and bring up that folder, fix the graphics and update the database." Folders can also be defined that organize graphics by the artist who developed them. The cost in terms of storage space is low, because each image is stored only once; only a new index is added.

Within the CBT community, an additional set of metadata elements is being developed under the auspices of Educom, a non-profit consortium of universities and corporations involved in developing new ways of using campus technology. The Instructional Management Systems (IMS) project (www.imsproject.org) is defining metadata labels for educational resources on the Internet that builds on the Dublin Core. "The way we are looking at learning and training is very much tied up with organizing information and moving away from the standard course material," said IMS director of market development Denis Newman. "Increasingly, the focus is on just-in-time learning and ready access to information when it is needed, rather than on formal, structured learning." For educational content to be built in a systematic way, management of the multimedia and other elements also had to be done in a more systematic way.

Multimedia databases

A number of companies have developed databases designed for managing multimedia content. Those include Cumulus from Canto Software (www.canto-software.com), MediaBank from Bitstream (www.bitstream.com) and Tropix from Alaras (www.alarascorp.com). FocalBase, an offshoot of Vicom, also produces a standalone multimedia asset manager.

Cumulus is widely used in the prepress industry and by multimedia developers. It supports a wide range of file types (more than 70) including graphics and video formats. The product was developed after Canto began marketing Cirrus, a scanning product. Once the graphics files were produced, customers found they needed a way to manage them.

Cumulus records metadata automatically as the file is cataloged, and files can be categorized across any dimension. Because Cumulus is integrated into applications such as Photoshop, QuarkXPress and Illustrator, it is not necessary to leave the applications to find a file. Cumulus appears as a utility that functions from within the application. Conversely, files can be viewed from within Cumulus, without launching the original application.

Jeff Harris, president of C-Graphix Digital Studios (Leesburg, VA), said, "We used Cumulus to catalog eight years of accumulated media files. Our media files were stored on DAT cartridges, and we had no way to search for prebuilt components. We put the best of this data on a computer with lots of hard disk space, and using Cumulus, we can now easily find what we need." The company is also using Cumulus to catalog media files stored on CD-ROMs. One feature that attracted Harris was the ability to access media over the Web. "We have people developing in two or three locations," said Harris, "so the CGI feature was critical."

CNN Interactive (Atlanta) uses Cumulus to store and retrieve graphics used on CNN's Web sites. Prior to implementing Cumulus, its graphic artists created a categorized file structure in a Macintosh environment where images were stored. Files were generally retrieved by the artists and routed to the Web developers. Because a file structure had been developed, it was easy to import the files and the category structure into Cumulus. "The advantage we have now is the ability to do more rapid and precise searches," said Dennis Backus, technical product manager for CNN Interactive. "In addition, users don't need to be familiar with the file structure to find a specific file, because the menu-driven search capability allows them to select from a wide variety of search criteria to locate the image they want. Now everyone, not just the artists, can more easily access the images." The organization also transitioned to a Windows NT environment having both Windows and Macintosh clients, which Cumulus supports.

A useful feature is the ability to distribute a multimedia catalog with the Cumulus Royalty Free Browser--a runtime version of the database. Also appealing is the low entry price. A single-user version of Cumulus 4.0 is about $100; a five-user network version is about $2,500.

Another highly regarded product is MediaBank, originally from Archetype, which has merged with Bitstream. MediaBank has a full-featured client interface as well as a Web browser interface and has NT, Unix and Macintosh versions. "Digital media management is a relatively new area," said Julie Mount, product manager at Bitstream. "Only in the last year or so have we begun to shift from marketing the concept of digital asset management to marketing our product."

Multipage QuarkXPress documents are shown as thumbnails, which enables users to preview an entire XPress document from within MediaBank. Full-text previews are available, which eliminates the need for launching a text application. Also, version control allows the user to revert to previous iterations of an image. Check-in/check-out security is available, and users can look at the checked out list. The product has a number of interesting features, including the ability to generate PDF files from QuarkXPress documents for Macintosh clients.

Cabela's (Sidney, NE), a company that sells camping and other products through catalogs, uses MediaBank to compile the company's mail order catalogs. Said Michael Margolies, Cabela's manager of systems, imaging and quality, "Assembling a page used to require an hour and a half; the operation is now down to a few minutes." In converting from the old system, which used a hierarchical file structure but had no search capability, the main database was imported and other items were added on a project-by-project basis. The system now contains approximately 150,000 images. Some of the metadata was captured when the images were imported, but other information was added later. For example, the photos all have SKU numbers that allowed identification of the specific product, but now descriptive text has been added so that any phrase can be searched.

MediaBank's Workgroup Edition costs $9,995 for a five-user license; additional seats are $795. A future version called the Enterprise Edition is scheduled in the second quarter of 1998; it will work on top of open database-compliant (ODBC) databases such as Microsoft's (www.microsoft.com) SQL Server or Oracle (www.oracle.com). Another enhancement planned is the incorporation of Verity's (www.verity.com) Search'97 technology into MediaBank, which will allow a variety of sophisticated full-text searching techniques, including query by example and natural language parsing, to locate items in the database.

Alaras' Tropix offers a valuable addition to basic image management capabilities with its Workflow Manager, which is a way of automating routine tasks such as converting image formats and moving files. For example, a procedure including entering a job number, creating Unix-compatible file names, scaling to a certain resolution and converting from one file format to another could be automated by Workflow Manager. The icons in Workflow Manager are plug-ins, so new icons can be developed and added relatively easily. Other products can implement a workflow capability through scripting, but Tropix has an icon-driven workflow structure that eliminates the need for programming many of the basic operations an image manager would want to perform.

Another feature of Tropix is the ability to define "hot folders" that serve as image translators. The user can place an image file into the hot folder, and periodically Tropix checks the folders and schedules the jobs for background processing.

Custom multimedia databases

If your company has strong expertise in programming, sometimes developing custom databases can offer a powerful and cost-effective alternative to off-the-shelf databases. "Data is data," said Booz-Allen (McLean, VA) programmer David Obler. "It doesn't matter whether you are managing text, numbers or multimedia files."

A variety of front-end software products can be used with different back-end software products to optimize the cost/performance ratio. For example, on the back end, Obler might use Oracle, which can store multimedia files in a raw format, with a PowerBuilder front end. Not all applications require a high-end product such as Oracle. A cost-effective solution can be developed by using a front end such as PowerBuilder with a more modest relational database such as Microsoft's Access. Those databases can be used to catalog and manage multimedia elements, but they also can do the job if what you need is a database that presents multimedia elements as part of its information.

For example, in an application for a government client, Obler developed a design for a catalog of microphones and amplifier parts before the retirement of the expert in the department that managed the devices. PowerBuilder was used as a front end, with SQL Anywhere (both products are from Powersoft, a subsidiary of Sybase, www.sybase.com) as the database. Now, individuals who are not electronics experts can locate the appropriate equipment. Along with the lower price of a mid-level database such as SQL Anywhere is easier maintenance, as compared to a product such as Oracle.

In one order entry database, Obler embedded audio files that produce applause when a salesperson reaches a quota. Why use multimedia in a sales database? For one thing, it is more interesting. "It's a way of making a tedious job more interesting and somewhat interactive," said Obler.

One drawback of custom databases is that unless considerable resources are expended to design the front end, the interface may not be as user-friendly as that of a commercial multimedia database product. That aspect is particularly important for Web developers and other visually-oriented individuals who may not want to tackle the finer points of relational databases.

For the future

Corporations will become progressively more aware that they can save time and money by organizing their multimedia assets for use in marketing, training, Web sites and other applications. Producers of multimedia asset management software will continue the move toward integrating with other applications and expanding the functionality of their products. More multimedia elements will be included in informational databases as a way of enriching content and engaging the user. All in all, multimedia remains a market worth watching.

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