Tailor-made training that is always relevant, never goes too fast and has an element of fun is an ideal come true on multimedia CD-ROM, Gary Molton reports.
Multimedia programming generally means computer games and educational packages. But the technology could transform the way industry handles product information and training needs. And options for custom designed CD-ROM training packages are just opening up.
New media use a combination of video, sound, graphics, animation and text files to present information. The user controls the supply of information and, short of an individual presentation by an experienced engineer, it is probably the best form of training you can get.
In addition, most programs can be entertaining and need no previous computer knowledge to use.
The key to multimedia's success, however, lies not so much in its undoubted quality, but in the fact that it is rapidly becoming a more cost-effective method of communication than traditional training and distribution techniques.
Follow the pictures
The basis of multimedia programs is a clear graphical interface. There's no need for the user to enter the correct commands or select features from different menus: navigation around a program is by clicking on pictures or objects.
While the technology is still developing, its potential is illustrated by flight simulators and interactive encyclopedias. The diversity of children's educational programs provides clear pointers to techniques that could be applied to industrial training packages in the future.
Developments in hardware and software have made multimedia packages increasingly viable. Sound, graphics and video files put heavy demands on processor resources and memory, but computers powerful enough to handle this have become much cheaper - one can be picked up for £600 - within the past few years.
Software techniques have also improved and multimedia authoring tools no longer have to be programmed in base code. This makes it easier for companies to look at producing their own multimedia packages.
There are three basic reasons, apart from the training potential, why a companies might consider producing a multimedia CD-ROM.
First, it may provide the most effective way of communication information about new or existing products. A CD-ROM can store a vast amount of information at very little cost.
Second, multimedia presentations make advertising and demonstrations more impressive - and they can be repeated again and again without losing their gloss.
Third, electronic distribution is much quicker and cheaper than traditional methods of distribution.
But the big market is in education and training, where interactive training can greatly improve both employees' and customers' understanding of products and services. And this illustrates the true potential of the technology: providing an individual service to a large number of people at the same time.
Users work at their own pace, studying the topics the need to know.
What's in it for me?
As an example, the most important questions anyone is likely to ask about a product is "what does it do" and "how does it work". Yet these simple questions may require completely different answers depending on the questioner's needs, experience and capabilities.
Interactive software lets users to investigate products at their own pace. When studying a hydraulic circuit, for example, users simple run the mouse over the different components to find out what they represent.
To examine a component in more detail they can click on the circuit or the menu bar to be taken to the next level. Effectively, they can look inside each component and, if necessary, see a moving demonstration of how it works.
Similarly, a gear pump can be animated to show the fluid flow and the pressure gradient around the gears. This provides a much clearer understanding of the principles involved and allows the user to investigate further areas of interest. This may include performance, service or spares information for example.
This ability to bring the equipment to life will greatly improve the understanding and speed with which trainees can learn.
The most important feature of computer-based training is its ability to interact with the user and to provide a logical procedure to practice what has been learnt. This gives it a distinct advantage over written or video information and makes a huge difference to how well the information is absorbed.
This may often take the form of presenting a piece of information, then asking the user to complete a simple task to show he has understood, then to reconfirm the main points with a relevant demonstration.
Children's programs clearly illustrate the different approaches. A user can, for instance, practice routines and procedures over and over again; gradually increase difficulty levels; do logical analysis or problem solving using mathematical models; assess speed of response; experiment by building and testing examples; and simulate failure modes or emergency situations to give operators practice at finding the correct response.
And of course a big advantage of multimedia software is that by building a simulation model, trainees can practice the skills they need long before they ever see the real equipment.
What price progress?
OFF-the-shelf multimedia training systems have been available for some time, are reasonably cheap and are general acknowledged as effective for employee training. But more highly targeted software customised to a particular company's products is still in its infancy. But the economics are becoming more favorable and tailor-made packages should soon become the norm.
The initial cost of producing an interactive CD-ROM can be quite high. The main costs are: marketing and distribution; graphic design; software; editorial content; and financing and stock. But once finished it can reach vast numbers of people for little cost.
While different aspects of businesses, particularly, perhaps, sales, are looking at the multimedia CD-ROM idea, training enjoys something of a head start. It will probably be able to adapt graphics from existing files and, as most pictures will probably be technical, they may be captured from CAD drawings or photographs. Simple camcorder clips can also be used.
Most large companies already have a wide range of training materials available. This is likely to make a good basis for an interactive CD. Most of the text and pictures can be stored externally to the program allowing companies to update content and language as required.
The cost will vary hugely, depending on what is required, but a short animated Christmas card or press release could be completed by one person in a week. A small standalone application describing one type of industrial valve could take one person a month. This would include a facility to investigate technical features and see a small animation of it working.
Larger programs will depend on the amount of information that needs to be provided and the variation in the software routines used. Typical workloads could vary between three months and a year. Other costs may include the use of a soundtrack and narration.
The material cost of CD-ROM's has continued to fall over recent years and, bearing in mind the huge amount of information they store, they are a very cost-efficient method of distributing
information.. Electronic distribution of smaller files is now quite common and is difficult to beat for punctuality and price.
At present, cut-down versions of programs can be embedded in web pages and run on the Internet. As the speed of the Internet increases, it may be possible to run large multimedia applications directly. This should bring a wealth of new uses.
TEACHING CD-ROM'S GET UP STEAM
In earlier times it would have been many years before a driver was allowed to take the controls of a steam locomotive.
By building a mathematical model controlled by a graphical representation of the engine's controls, it is possible to sit in front of a computer, drive along a track and present trainees with any track obstruction they are ever likely to meet.
A CD would contain the regulations, timetable, maintenance manual and driving test at the same time. Additional help is also provided because the animated locomotive has several training modes in which each new control can be introduced separately.
A significant level of realism is also provided by the use of video and sound files. By this technique the whole learning process becomes much easier and more fun.
Once the initial model has been built, it is relatively easy to apply it to different locomotives or tracks. Before trainees are allowed to drive a loco they must first pass a simple test to show they have understood all the rules and regulations.
This same approach can be applied to a range of different machines.