A look back at 1998’s state of the art in multimedia technology.
It dawned on me recently that I’ve been doing “this” a long time… a really long time. Twenty years ago this summer I completed my first professional projects in experiential multimedia.
To mark the occasion, I’m taking a trip down memory lane. Here’s a look at some of the tools and technologies I worked with at the beginning of my career:
I taught myself web design because I was bored with print design, and then I taught myself multimedia authoring because I was bored with web design.
Granted, web development in 1998 was itself an exercise in frustration. The web offered little control over typography and limited interactivity; the only way to achieve complex designs was to break pages up into tables – which of course is not what HTML tables were meant to do. It worked, mostly, but it was a patchwork of workarounds.
In 1998, there was really only one player in multimedia authoring: Macromedia Director. While limited by today’s standards, Director allowed timeline-based animation. layering of media assets, and interactivity. Plus, it was extensible, with “Xtra” plugins to enable printing, web browsers, file access, and more.
But a new upstart had recently arrived: FutureSplash, a vector drawing app, added simple animation capabilities and a web plugin that could compress content to tiny file sizes – so important in these days of dial-up modems. Purchased by Macromedia and rechristened as Flash, it became the de facto tool for web-based presentations at the time.
My first museum project, a series of kiosks for the Museum of the Moving image, combined these two platforms, embedding Flash animations into a Director application; this hybrid technology was brand new at the time, and it offered some truly seamless user experiences – I’d continue to use this combination for years to come.
“Flash” forward 20 years – Adobe, which acquired Macromedia in the early 2000s, discontinued Director in 2017 and no longer supports it. Flash became ubiquitous, then got a bad rap because of web security issues, and has been rebranded as Animate, a tool focused on mobile and web app development.
Web technology caught up… mostly. With support for video, vector graphics, 3D content, and complex typography, HTML5 has slowly but surely moved into the forefront of multimedia development. But it has limitations, particularly when interfacing with emerging technologies. And so we have new tools and multimedia frameworks: Unity, Processing, openFrameworks, Cinder, TouchDesigner, all incredibly powerful, with strengths, weaknesses, and quirks that will seem quaint 20 years from now.
Many of today’s applications assume constant connectivity, which was simply not feasible in 1998. For starters, the vast majority of venues still relied on phone-line dial-up modems, which topped out at 56 kbps. At this speed, it would have taken about 10 minutes to download an MP3 file – but in the days before Napster and iTunes, there weren’t many music files floating around the Internet.
At the high end of the connectivity spectrum, one of my clients had a T-1 line, which afforded download speeds of 1.5 mbps (shared among a dozen co-workers). As a point of comparison, streaming a single Netflix video takes about 5 mbps, and my modest home connection currently gives me 50 mbps. The price for 1998’s state of the art T-1? About $1500 per month.
And to get any connection at all, you’d need to be properly wired up. Though some earlier wireless technologies existed, it wasn’t until 1999 that the moniker Wi-Fi came about and the 802.11b protocol became standard.
So how did I share large media files with my peers? For much of the 1990s I used Zip Drives, the cartridge-based storage system that cost about $20 for each 100MB disk. But by 1998, this technology was losing ground to CD-Rs, which offered more storage, cheaper media, and more universal access. Unfortunately, in 1998, a CD drive with 2x write capability could cost upwards of $1000.
In 1998, my home computer was a Mac clone – a rare species that only existed for a few years in the mid 1990s, until Apple got cold feet and killed off the licensing program. Mine was a Power Computing desktop tower, which came standard with a 1.2 GB hard drive and 16 MB – not GB – of RAM. It’s still sitting in my storage unit, but I wouldn’t count on it to boot up after all this time.
The candy-colored iMacs wouldn’t be released until later in 1998, but by that time, I’d made the transition from Mac to PC. My clients all used Windows, and I had to confess that I kind of liked it (and still do!). Windows ’98 wasn’t as sleek as Mac OS 8, but I enjoyed having full control over my computer and its peripherals, outside the limits of Apple’s walled garden.
I worked off of a shiny CRT display running at a high resolution of 1024 x 768. Apple’s first flat screen LCD display had been released early in 1998; a year later, a generous client would gift me the second-generation display. Its 15″ screen cost $1099, and was, for several years, my most prized possession.
And while touchscreens would soon become a mainstay of my installation work, in 1998 they were still overpriced and clunky – closer to ATM machines than the sleek projected capacitance displays we use today. My installations were usually presented with a mouse and keyboard, but for very special exhibits, a trackball might be deployed.
Some other things that didn’t exist in 1998: Wikipedia, iPods, smart phones, social media, GPS, E-readers, Text Messaging, YouTube, Bluetooth, DVRs, and USB flash drives.
In spite of the evolutionary tech developments of the past two decades, I do feel a sense of continuity between the earliest days of my career and the most recent. The goal then, as now, remains largely the same – to use the tools at hand to build cool, fun, engaging user experiences. And while some of my earliest haven’t stood the test of time, I recognize and remember, with some fondness, the excitement I felt at wielding these technologies to bring these projects to life.