A major barrier to cooperative working can be the different file formats used by different members of a team. With the number of different word processors available, this can be a problem when only text data needs to be exchanged, but when multimedia information needs to be exchanged this problem can be much worse. Using existing resources in new multimedia applications can also be difficult, as there are many different types of file format for each media, and a particular application will probably only accept a small subset of these. For example, there are perhaps 90 common image formats in use, but an authoring program such as Authorware will only allow you to import about seven of these. Formats suitable for archiving and storing data may not be suitable for general use, and the problem may be compounded when it is necessary to transfer data between different platforms.
Good practice, using standard formats, can help alleviate this problem, but this may not always be possible, as the format is often determined by the software you use, and the audience it is aimed at. Fortunately there are a large number of conversion tools available, both specialist tools which only provide conversion facilities, and those which allow conversion as part of a wider set of functions. Finding the right tool to convert between specific formats can be difficult however.
There is also a need for general information about file formats. For example, a tutor considering using digital video in a computer aided learning (CAL) package will want to know the pros and cons of the various formats such as MPEG, AVI and QuickTime. This information is available online, in the form of various Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) files and other assorted documents, but again finding it can be difficult and very time consuming.
For these reasons the Multimedia File Formats Database was created. This is an online searchable database, developed by Jon Knight of Loughborough University of Technology, which contains records of software and documents (mostly online) relating to file formats. Software includes conversion, display and editing tools, and documentation includes file format descriptions, international standards documentation, FAQs and so on.
The database search engine is available over the World Wide Web as part of the SIMA Multimedia Support pages at: http://info.mcc.ac.uk/CGU/SIMA/mmffdb.html and requires a browser that supports forms.
The records are stored as IAFA (Internet Anonymous FTP Archives) templates, which are indexed to allow rapid searching. Although the database is currently administered by the SIMA Multimedia Support Officer, it is hoped that the database will be kept up to date by the people who use it. New document and software records can easily be added using the provided forms. Document and software records contain basically the same information, but are separated to facilitate searching.
The templates contain two types of fields, plain and variant fields. Variant information is information which may appear more than once for a particular source. For example a document may be available in ASCII or postscript form, with two different URLs. Multiple authors, administration details and publishers may also be entered. The plain fields, which only occur once per category, include title, description, source, keywords and so on. The field names on the input form are all hyperlinked to help files describing each field and providing example templates.
The search engine performs a simple keyword or boolean search of the indexed templates, including both documents and software records, or just one or the other. Supported Boolean expressions are:
& Logical AND
| Logical OR
! Logical NOT
Complete records of the resulting hits may be displayed, or just a pointer to the online source (headlines).
For more information please contact:
Sue Cunningham, Multimedia Support Officer
Computer Graphics Unit, Manchester Computing
University of Manchester