Eric Hewitt endures the Third International Interactive Multimedia Symposium in Perth

The Third International Interactive Multimedia Symposium was held over four days at the Hyatt Hotel in Perth, January 21-26. A myriad of sessions ran concurrently in four different conference rooms of the hotel with a major central session occurring every now and then in the main ballroom. Very much the format you see at many of these conferences, especially the ones focussing on multimedia. And haven’t there been a lot of those lately? Seems like every time you turn around there’s one on, and its the biggest and best and for god’s sake, you’d better not miss it or else you’re gonna wind up in the information superditch. With a title like “The Third International Interactive Multimedia Symposium”, one may well have been forgiven for thinking that this was an all embracing encounter with multimedia from around the world with speakers and experts from all fields.

In fact most of the speakers were Australian and many of those from W.A. It was also captioned “The Learning Superhighway” (don’t you wish they’d discard that “life’s a long road” metaphor). The caption actually referred to the fact that this symposium was primarily focused on uses of multimedia in education and issues surrounding multimedia as an educational delivery tool. In accordance with this, nearly all presentations were of this theme.

Typical of the sessions were “An Interactive Multimedia Approach To Disseminating Engineering Standards” and “Open Math: An Integrated Course for the Teaching and Learning of Foundation Mathematics”. Many others were similarly specialised and I’m sure that even some educationalists would have found themselves searching for subject matter of direct relevance. The education professionals did indeed make up the bulk of the audience. The number of multimedia artists and industry people who did attend, may well have found the pickings relatively slim in terms of new and relevant information.

Some of the exceptions dealt with more across-the-board subject matter. One in particular by Mr Z. Youlo entitled “A Maintaining Solution For Publishing Documents On The World Wide Web” addressed a very real problem: web server maintenance of links once changes have been made. His organisation has designed a database node solution which automatically updates links thereby greatly reducing maintenance needs. Welcome news if you are running a webserver or maintaining a website. In general it was surprising that internet issues did not receive more attention than they did.

The gee whiz prize was taken by the people from the AMES Research Centre at NASA who demonstrated some pretty amazing three-dimensional techniques to illustrate processes in fluid dynamics. Art for science’s sake, you could say. It’s funny how science and education end up using art if they want people to absorb information or pay attention for substantial periods of time.

It’s impossible to attend all sessions at a conference of this scale. Thus, despite some of the intriguing rhetorical titles such as “Multimedia On the Net, On Disk: Are The Universities Ready For It?” and “Clinical Medicine: Can The Computer Replace The Patient?” one was forced to pick and choose those of most pressing interest.

The only artist I could find in the whole four day program was a certain A. Lusk, who delivered a paper at Tuesday lunchtime, “Virtual Reality or Virtual Unreality”. Mr Lusk’s presentation meditated on virtual reality and its implications for art, artists, concepts of illusion, postmodernism and the nature of representation—centrally, the notion that the lines between reality and illusion, art and everyday-life are becoming increasingly blurred. I would have thought a glance at an Oprah Winfrey Show audience would have demonstrated this truism, never mind flash 3D walk-through environments. But the new environments are interactive too, and thus the audience is no longer simply a passive recipient but now a powerful participator in production. The individual genius (dictator?) is banished in favour of the democracy of authorless interactive collaborations. Like ants making an anthill.

This was an interesting paper, for me at least, and I came away wondering why there had not been more of this sort of debate at this symposium. The universities, after all, are home to many extensive art, philosophy and literature faculties, many of whom have taken an active interest and energetic participation in multimedia production and debate. They were conspicuous by their absence. As for international developments in this field, who knows? Murdoch University’s wonderful publication Continuum has, for me, run one of the best forums for debate on these areas in Australia in recent times.

By the end of day four I’d picked up quite a lot about cognitive tools, educational psychology and empirically tested learning behaviour models, (largely against my will), but precious little in other areas. Perhaps the educationalists should have broadened their vision and the scope of debate in relation to what multimedia and online interaction is and can be.

RealTime issue #11 Feb-March 1996 pg. 28

© Eric Hewitt; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 1996