Just what IS a data type?

In my computer studies subject I was asked to write an assignment where I defined a unit of work around one of the official Board of Studies options. The one I chose was Authoring and Multimedia but I hit up against a puzzling situation where the curriculum didn’t seem to make sense in my context of understanding in the computing field.

It all revolves around what the definition for "data type" is.

First, here are the offending sections within the curriculum:

  1. In the introduction for the option it says "The project should incorporate three data types into a multimedia project controlled by a computer." Looks ok so far, but then I got hit with this beauty:
  2. The last activity said "Innovation in a selected data type such as animation."

Say what? Animation is a data type? Since when? Data types as far as I understood were very constrained pieces of information. From a primitive point of view, we’re talking about things like integers and dates. Yeah, you can get composite types too, but these are still well defined types made up of primitives. Composite types would still be data types though and have a defined set of properties but not much else.

Animation has surely got to be a class type at best. And even if it is, you can’t just leave me hanging with "animation" without telling me what your definition is of that term. Is it "animation" the way PowerPoint thinks of it – i.e. the movement of something from point A to point B? Is it "animation" the way a cartoon animator would think of it – i.e. an artistically produced cel-animation? Is it "animation" as in a series of graphical frames put together to make something look like it’s moving – i.e. a video? Is it "animation" as in something overlaid in a video?

Using animation as is, is too amorphous a term to consider it to be a defined data type, surely? Data types are

Wikipedia seems to back me up (look up both data type, and animation)… the books I’ve written back me up (which means the technical editors and reviewers all do). But if I’m right, then where does that leave me with the Board of Studies? Where does it leave me for my assignment?

I posted my query on the university forum and got a varied response (for the record, the lecturer wasn’t sure but is trying to get a definition and a list of acceptable data types for me). One student said:

multimedia data types are
to name a few
these are the files you import into the autoring enviroment like flash, director, dremweaver, or use in html files.
any other questions just ask

Ah yes, thanks mate – I think I’ll leave it. They followed that up with a second post that was a bit more on the right track (as far as I can see):

and sorry for those who havnt a multimedia degree
are all multimedia data types
this has nothing to do with programming

Still – that list raises even more questions for me – in the context they’re referring to, I’m guessing "text" is not "string" but a multimedia text object that has intrinsic functionality beyond that of a data type (or at least, what I consider to be data type). Is a "text" data type something that allows input? Formatting of individual characters? Copy/paste? Is it output only? Does it allow animation? No, wait – animation is a data type, not an action on an object…  they’ve differentiated between animation and video – at least that’s something.

Given  their obvious background in multimedia, I’ve followed it up with further questions (oh wait, that means I am asking them "any other questions"… *sigh* never mind) to further clarify this kind of cloudiness.

I would question their last statement though – data types are all about programming, whether it’s a formal identification in software development or you’re using them in a multimedia project, or even to define components of your real world interactions if you’re going to be as loose as the Board of Studies appears to be in its definition of what a data type is. It’s just a different programming context.

Oh well – the assignment is done and submitted. I used the generic terms animation, sound, text input object, etc, to describe things students had to do and avoided defining them explicitly as data types. We’ll have to wait and see how that affects my marks.

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3 Responses to Just what IS a data type?

  1. Trish says:

    Ohhh they mean data types = files to multimedia people. As in, a type of data file. I think you\’re thinking about it too hard, you have to think down to the level of people who have never heard of ints and doubles. 🙂 So data type equals "some type of data, like stuff that you could put on a website".
    I have to admit, I did a double-take on the "animation is a data type" thing too. But really, having to use the phrase "controlled by a computer" should alone be a sign that the programmer hat may have to be left at home for this one. 🙂

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