The supermarket checkout scrum could soon be a thing of the past with the arrival of shopping terminals, just one of the many applications of multimedia, a dramatic mix of video audio and animation available on some desktop PCs.
Few chores are more tedious than the weekly expedition to the supermarket to pick up the same assortment of shopping. Retailers, meanwhile, have the problem of stocking bulky staple items that take up an enormous amount of space on the shop floor but make a minimum contribution to profits. Both problems could be solved by cashpoint-type grocery terminals that would allow customers to place their orders on screens located in streets, stations, offices and coffee bars.
The shopping terminals have far more visual appeal than hole-in-the-wall cash machines because they have touch-sensitive screens with full-colour video, audio, text, graphics and animation. To place orders, customers insert a card and PIN number. This calls up their regular shopping list and they simply press "yes" or "no" for each item. They can then choose extra items, specify how they want to pay and indicate whether the shopping is to be collected or delivered.
Shopping this way is quicker, easier and more enjoyable for the consumer, while retailers can use the system to highlight new products and special offers. Kevin Duffill, a manager at Andersen Consulting, which designed the shopping terminals, says, "The system could be used to cross sell other products that might interest individual customers." For a customer who wanted to buy mineral water, the screen could show the range of bottled waters in stock, and their prices. It could also give details of each water's mineral content, its geographic source and nutritional value, and the latest commercial could run alongside. "Meanwhile, for those who still wanted a trip to the shops, there would be space to display a range of more specialised goods, and provide advice or information by experts or computers," says Duffill.
The shopping terminal is just one of many new applications for "multimedia", the pot pourri of video, audio and animation which is now becoming available on desktop PCs. Analysts believe multimedia products will be one of the biggest growth areas in computing during the 1990s. Sales are forecast to soar from £285 million in 1991 in the US and Europe, to almost £5.1 billion by 1997, according to Ovum, a market research company which recently published a report on the subject (Multimedia: Strategies for the Business Market by Judith Jeffcoate and Alison Templeton telephone 071 255 2670 for details). Multimedia software will represent around 17% of the total business software market within four years, and 34% of all desktop PCs will be running multimedia applications.
By creating computers that are far easier to use, multimedia makes them accessible to a much wider audience. The impact will be similar to that achieved by the introduction of graphics during the '80s. Previously most computers had been limited to text and numbers. Graphics made possible a host of user-friendly features such as on-screen "icons" to represent filing cabinets, documents, calculators and waste bins. Now further advances in the mass storage, processing and transmission of computer information have created the leap to multimedia.
One of the first major applications is using computers to supplement or replace human experts at enquiry desks or information kiosks. Multimedia screens are not just interesting to look at, they are also easy to manipulate, inviting users to access information by pressing keys or displayed menus. One area where this could be particularly useful is in education. Indeed, parents choosing schools in Hounslow will soon be able to take guided tours of schools in their area by using an Apricot PC in the Council's Education Department foyer.
The PC will display videos of head teachers who out-line their educational approach. These will be accompanied by pictures of science laboratories, libraries, sports facilities and other parts of the schools. The result will be far less time spent by staff answering parents' questions. Jonathan Pritchard, principal officer for education at Hounslow, says, "It's all very well handing out information on paper, but getting the computer to talk to parents will give them much more help in selecting a school."
Hounslow's Education Department staff also plan to use multimedia for adding voice notes to their paperwork. Instead of scribbling notes in the margin, voice annotation allows users to record their spoken comments on a computer disk, along with the text. To record, they simply click the mouse pointing device on the screen's microphone icon and begin speaking. The icon then appears on the document so that anyone reading it can play back the recorded comments simply by clicking the mouse on the icon. It is ideal for informal comments such as: "Fred, I meant to tell you about this last week" or "I'm emphasising this point because the customer is worried".
Voice is a faster and more natural way of expressing and recording information than a keyboard. Jonathan Pritchard says, "Many staff who type drafts of their own letters and memos are very interested in using voice annotation to explain to their secretaries how they would like the documents prepared or where they should be sent."
Multimedia also has rich potential for adding razzmatazz to business presentations. Proposals can be made far more memorable with dramatic music, stunning pictures, and video clips of satisfied customers giving their own testimonials. A survey by Commodore found that multimedia improves listeners' retention rates by 50%, the persuasive power increases by 40%, comprehension is up 30% and meeting time is down by 25%.
But if added excitement is the last thing you need, multimedia can also help make life less hectic with its video-conferencing facilities. Executives who are over-stressed by taking train, plane and motorway journeys to meetings can now use desktop PCs to talk to colleagues hundreds of miles away as if they were in the same room.
Until recently, video-conferencing required studios with special equipment, costing more than £100,000, to handle the huge amount of data involved in transmitting high-quality video pictures. One second of efficiently coded colour TV involves up to 500 times more data than a page of A4 text. But now PCs with built-in videoconferencing are available for around £7,000, and expected to plunge to half that price by the end of 1993.
Multimedia also lends itself to training programmes. Trainees can work at their own pace, in whatever location is most convenient, using interactive courses with text, video and sound. Even technical subjects can be effectively taught in this way. GPT, the UK telecoms group, transmits 3-D images of its circuit boards to illustrate points during lectures for its trainee engineers. Multi-media simulations are ideal for teaching potentially dangerous skills such as train-driving or piloting a plane. And whereas human teachers tend to be biased in favour or against particular pupils, computer-based systems can make objective judgements of individual performance.
Vast cost-savings are possible in this area. IBM has used multimedia techniques to reduce its field force training bill by $300 million since 1984. BT saved £1.4 million during the first 18 months of using a computer-based training course, due largely to reduction in tutors' time and training, travel costs and accommodation.
So why isn't everyone installing multimedia PCs? Although Andersen Consulting has demonstrated its retail system to virtually every major supermarket chain in the UK, it has, as yet, no takers. One problem is lack of standards. Multimedia depends on linking together all kinds of different systems and formats. Indeed, the problems of incompatibility are horrendous. Users are wary of being caught out backing the wrong technology, as when Betamax lost out to VHS in video-recorders.
There is also market scepticism in response to the computer industry's continuing tendency to oversell the wonders of technology. Multimedia salesmen should beware of a backlash, warns Peter Horn, group managing director of Apricot, the British computer maker now owned by Mitsubishi. "Some companies are selling multimedia as if it enabled people to make their own brilliant Steven Spielberg-type movies. But such demonstrations cost millions of pounds to put together and users can very easily feel disappointed." In reality, Horn reckons, multimedia is an enabling technology which will gradually become absorbed into all computer software, making it easier to use.
According to Geoff Vincent, business development director at PA Consulting, people have barely begun to understand the implications of multimedia. "It is all about providing a much richer kind of electronic information."
Although most businesses now store, process and transmit information on computers, they still use paper to interact with it, he says. "There is a tremendous benefit in humans interacting directly with electronic information. Whatever a person's job - sales, marketing, manufacture, or senior management - it creates incredible possibilities."
An example of what can happen was provided by the international money markets on Black Wednesday last September. Vincent explains, "Traders now have direct access to financial information which may be more up-to-date than that in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's office. This has created an anarchic, self-organising network of information flow that has almost taken over."
Every sector will begin a transition towards this sort of behaviour during the next few years, Vincent believes. Now that the multimedia revolution is under way, there is no stopping it. The winners will be those that manage to spot the opportunities in providing people with access to far greater amounts of information. If nothing else, it should reduce the scrum at the supermarket checkout.