A new stage of learning

22nd October 2004 at 01:00
George Cole reviews a software program that is taking media studies to a new dimension


PC CD-Rom for key stage 4 media studies, pound;350 (excluding VAT) for single user (discounts available for multiple orders) Immersive Education

Tel: 01865 811099

www.immersiveeducation.co.uk www.mediastage.net

I first saw a prototype of MediaStage last year and described it as a giant leap forward for educational software, combining advanced graphics, artificial intelligence and voice synthesis technologies. MediaStage is at the cutting edge of educational software. However, being at the cutting edge means you need a powerful computer to run it - producer Immersive Education recommends a PC running Windows 2000 or XP with a 1.5GHz processor, 256Mb of RAM memory and a powerful graphics card.

In other words, a bog-standard classroom PC won't run this program adequately: you need something more like a games PC. I ran it on a PC with one gigabyte of RAM memory. Another issue is the price, but I believe that any school investing in this program would see a good return for its money because it is a superb resource for both media studies students and teachers. This is one package that won't get left in a cupboard.

MediaStage lets you create your own 3D productions (for theatre, TV or film) that include characters, sets, props, lights and cameras. Activities can be done as large group exercises on an interactive whiteboard, but I suspect, most of the time, small groups of students would work together on a project on a PC. MediaStage comes with some complex-looking documentation and I would recommend that after reading the basics, you load up the program and experiment with the various features to get a feel for what it can offer.

Although MediaStage is brimming with features, it isn't too difficult to get to grips with creating a performance. First, you click on a button to select a scene (eg a TV studio or street). You can change the perspective by using your mouse wheel or the cursor keys to move the scene around. You can also adjust the ambient lighting using a slider control. Press another button and you can select the props for your scene. There are hundreds of props, ranging from cola cans to cars and, in order to save you time, a menu lets you select props according to various groupings (such as transport, office and street furniture).

Next come the actors. There are 14 characters to choose from and once you've selected your character, you can adjust their acting state (for instance, they can be made to react to their surroundings), behaviour (they can be aggressive or confused, for example) and gestures. Characters can be made to stand, walk or sit under your guidance. Characters, of course, can also speak and there are three ways of doing this. A small window can be used for typing in dialogue and, when completed, the computer converts the text to speech. However, the program uses a standard PC text-to-speak synthesiser, which simply produces a crude male voice - which is rather disconcerting if the character is female. Immersive recommends that students use a microphone to record their own voices and a lip-synchronisation system means the characters can speak with your voice.

A third option is to import a sound file.

The set can be lit by up to four spotlights at any time and the lights can have their intensity adjusted or be used with gels. Four lights might not seem a lot, but the computing power needed to calculate shadows and other effects for more than this number would mean using an even more powerful computer.

You can also control up to five cameras and be your own director by cutting between them. A time interval setting means you can make sharp cuts or smooth transitions. Pictures and videos can be imported so that, say, a poster or a video wall can display your own images. If you use this program while online, a built-in browser takes you to a dedicated website with pre-prepared activities created by Heinemann. For example, if a student wanted to practise the basic skills of story-boarding or camera work, they could use these activities before going on to create their own scene. The website will also be used for updating the software from time to time, and Heinemann has produced a text book and teacher guide to accompany MediaStage in addition to curriculum materials within the program.

If you get the chance to see MediaStage in action or try it for yourself, you'll soon see why it's one of the best examples of educational software around.

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