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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Enviro CD-ROMs

Air Date: Week of

Multimedia is the next big thing in home computing. Our reviewer looks at what’s good — and not so good — in multimedia about the environment.


(Tropical bird song)

CURWOOD: We're deep in the rainforest, surrounded by snakes and bugs and vines that look like they want to grab you! Not really. You're just hearing the sound track to a computer program, a multimedia presentation on animals. Multimedia is the latest thing in home computing, and if you've ever ordered anything from a computer company, your mailbox is probably stuffed with catalogues listing the stuff. Most of the titles are encyclopedias and games, but ecology is carving out a promising niche. Reviewer Ben Paulos gives us a taste of what's out there.

PAULOS: I've been hanging out in Cambridge lately, where there's a software store on every corner. Nearly every one of these stores has at least a few environmental multimedia programs buried under all the space battles and monster melees. Don't tell your kids, but some of these discs are very educational. Or they can be. Some aren't quite so great. So far, most environmental discs are aimed at kids, and kids like animals. So we've got zoos, National Geographic specials and Jacques Cousteau. And James Earl Jones.

JONES: Earth. What makes our planet so special? So unusual?

PAULOS: (Against backdrop of the program's music) A World Alive is billed as an interactive documentary. Like a normal documentary, you can passively watch a 30-minute video on wildlife. But when an interesting or strange animal comes on, you can pause the video and click the mouse to go immediately to more information. For example, the video shows a howler monkey climbing a tree. With a click of the mouse - (music stops) - we can jump, monkey-like, to a page of facts and learn that the monkey's howl can be heard 3 miles away. For some reason, we can't hear it. The disc only gives us graphics where sound would be really compelling.

This is a common shortcoming of some environmental CD-ROMs, but more on that later. A World Alive also tells us that the howler monkey shares its habitat with a bunch of other animals, including the Mexican free-tail bat. Selecting the bat from this list (clicks mouse), we fly over to the bat's page of facts, which tells us that its droppings were used to make gunpowder in the American Civil War.

A World Alive is visually quite nice, and the interactive format means you can ask questions of the video. But it runs a little short on facts, offering something more like flash cards than an encyclopedia. (Clicks mouse)

VOICE: (Against a backdrop of wind and chirping birds) Like the real zoo, the multimedia zoo is made up of hundreds of exhibits, like this one...

PAULOS: Another wildlife CD, The Animals, presents a virtual visit to the San Diego Zoo.

VOICE: (Against same backdrop) This is the tundra biome exhibit, where you can explore the tundra biome...

PAULOS: The Animals isn't as neat conceptually as the interactive documentary, but it presents a bottomless pit of information. And somehow, it manages to have twice as much video as A World Alive.

VOICE: You can discover what the tundra looks like and how plants and animals get along there.

PAULOS: This difference between The Animals and A World Alive shows some of the difficulties that software developers face. Most environmental discs are what industry types call "edu-tainment." But it's hard for developers to balance the "edu," the education, with the "tainment," the fun.

Some of these CDs pay too much attention to flash and not enough to the quality of the information. Others suffer from simple lack of imagination. CD-ROMs should be a lot more than books on tape.

VOICE: The Earth is a complicated system. And it is the only planet in the universe known to have life...

PAULOS: One flashy but flawed interactive program is The Big Green Disk. I had high hopes for this one. It's one of the very few that deals with substantive issues, from water pollution to global warming. And one reviewer called it, "a really lush disc." I admit, it looks great. But the lushness seems to stop at the sound and video. The only sounds, in fact, are the voices of the narrator and guests, and the only video is clips of people sitting and talking.

VOICE: The niche is the position...

PAULOS: Fortunately, you can pause it at any time (clicks mouse; voice stops). And maybe I'm expecting too much, but the content can be pretty simplistic. At one point it says, "Plastics are not recyclable, so try to avoid them." In fact, some plastics are commonly recycled, and some aren't. This could have been a chance for the program to explain the complicated issues of plastics recycling, and the virtues of source reduction. Instead, The Big Green Disk offers a pat solution that cuts off the learning process. (Clicks mouse)

VOICE: Confused? Well, it's not surprising.

PAULOS: And while other disks may be factually correct, they can give messages that are debatable at best. (Clicks mouse)

DUVALL: Hello. I'm Shelley Duvall. Who wishes they a were... a cat.? No. Who's glad they're a bird?

PAULOS: It's A Bird's Life is an interactive CD with a children's story written by actress Shelley Duvall. It tells the story of 8 parrots, 6 of which are endangered species, living in a house in Los Angeles with Shelley and her guy. When the house burns down in a brush fire, the parrots head for the Amazon, only to find widespread destruction of the rainforest from logging and mining.

PARROT #1: We should have stayed in LA. Or, even better, we should have stayed with Pearlie at the zoo in San Diego.

PARROT #2: Oh come on, George! You want to live in a zoo?

PARROT #3: It would have been better than here. Some paradise this is!

PAULOS: They decide that LA is where they belong, and convince no less than 32 other parrots to return with them. They arrive to find the house rebuilt and settle in to stay.

DUVALL: And so, the birds had found their way home. It was great to know they didn't have to worry any more about food, weather, bird catchers, smog, mining or logging. Now this was paradise.

PAULOS: It's just great that this CD teaches young kids about the destruction of the rainforest. But the solution it offers - that endangered species should be taken into the celebrity homes of America - is half-baked. This CD is pure Hollywood. It's all 'tainment and no edu. Clearly, environmental multimedia has yet to fully mature. But, with that warning in mind, multimedia CDs can be a great way to learn about complicated environmental problems. By giving you text, audio and video in a single package, it can present environmental issues in a way that a book, a TV show, or - yes, even a radio show can't by itself.

(Sounds of cellophane packaging.)

PAULOS: Oh yeah, one more thing. Nearly every one of these CDs comes in a box that is way too big for the product, just to take up shelf space and get your attention in the store. But that's another story. For Living On Earth, this is Ben Paulos. (Clicks mouse)

VOICE: Lots of the products we buy have far too much paper or plastic wrapped around them. Try to avoid over-packaged goods, or buy those in recyclable or biodegradable packaging.


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