Interactive encyclopedia makes doing research fun


January 04, 1993|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

For a year or so now, I've been wondering what all the multimedia hype is about.

Sure, the idea of mixing text, sound, photos and animation on a computer screen sounded great, but multimedia was awkward, expensive and didn't have much to do with the way I worked.

Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia for Windows (CIE) changed my mind. This piece of gee-whizz technology is a useful, informative and entertaining research tool for youngsters and adults. It stretches the personal computer to its limits and makes a great case for investing in the hardware required to make it work.

The encyclopedia comes on a single CD-ROM that includes 32,000 articles comprising over 9 million words; 13,000 pictures, maps and graphs; 50 minutes of sound, music and speech, a world atlas, a dictionary and 90 multimedia sequences -- slide shows, animations and full-motion video clips (including Babe Ruth hitting a home run).

Unlike Compton's first CD-ROM encyclopedia for IBM-compatibles, this one runs under Microsoft Windows and is fully integrated with that environment. This makes it easy to work on a report using a word processor, flip over to the encyclopedia to do some research, and flip right back to your document.

TC CIE requires some heavy hardware. You'll need a computer with an 80386 processor (16 Mhz speed is the minimum, but faster is much better), four megabytes of memory, a CD-ROM drive and a sound card accessible from Windows. You'll also need a VGA monitor and adapter -- and you'll need a super-VGA card with 256-color capacity to get the best results with photos and video clips.

If you haven't investigated multimedia, CD-ROM is an acronym for Compact Disk Read Only Memory. It's a drive that uses the same kind of compact disks that your stereo CD player uses. But instead of storing music digitally, a CD-ROM stores data that can include programs, text and graphic images as well as sound. A single compact disk can store up to 600 megabytes of data -- which is why Compton's and other CD-ROM publishers can pack all those goodies onto a single disk and have plenty of room left over.

Until recently, CD-ROM drives were expensive and difficult to integrate with other hardware. Now there are a half-dozen multimedia kits on the market that can give you sound and CD-ROM for as little as $500. Many manufacturers are also selling "multimedia" computers that have the sound circuitry and CD-ROM drives built in. Generally, you'll pay more for a faster CD-ROM drive and better sound board. The former is more important than the latter unless you're a serious musician.

I ran the program on the old, mongrelized 386/20 PC my kids use, with a low-end Fusion multimedia kit from Creative Labs. This is the bottom of the hardware scale for Windows and multimedia systems in general, and CIE's performance was, shall we say, leisurely. But compared to the time it would take to do the same kind of research with books, CIE was greased lightning on roller skates.

CIE presents you with a variety of "paths" to the information you're looking for. Using pulldown menus or a tool bar with icons showing each path, you can scroll through a table of contents, search for a specific entry, browse through lists of general research topics or enter an "idea search." This is what on-line searchers call a text search, which looks for the phrase you typed in or something close to it.

When I asked for "dinosaurs," it took CIE 20 seconds to identify all 23 entries that contained the term and display them in the order it thought would be most useful. You can search the same way for pictures, sound, animations and video clips.

The main dinosaur article contained markers for photographs and cross references in the margins. The section on flying reptiles, for example, included a cross reference marker to a portion of the encyclopedia's main entry on birds that discussed the first real feathered flier. I clicked on that, and up popped the birds entry, with a discussion of the archaeopteryx. Next to that was an icon of a camera. I clicked on that, and up popped a photo of an archaeopteryx fossil.

Moving from one subject to the next is so easy and addictive that kids may start to find that research is fun. And a "virtualized work space," CIE's term for a visual map that shows you all the articles, photos, videos and dictionary entries you currently have open. That makes it easy to keep track of where you are and restore your last work session.

There's plenty to hook the TV generation. Besides searching for articles, CIE lets you search for photos, videos, slide shows and animations. The video clips, with sound, essentially run on a mini-TV in the middle of your screen. How good they look depends on the speed of your computer and CD-ROM drive and the type of video adapter installed.

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