Reviewed by Alex Sutton, February 17, 1995
This is the first CD ROM I saw which showed to me the true power of the medium--how images, text, video, and sound can be combined to provide a richness of material and depth way beyond what is possible through a museum exhibition or book. I really like the way in which the works of art are presented, and I think the interface is a novel in presentation and effective for navigating the program. It is clear what the icons are supposed to do. My only technical complaint is that when viewed at 24-bit color, new images are slow to load, even with 16 MB of RAM.
The thought that went into American Visions is evident from the main screen. Thumbnail images are presented on a background whose texture is that of gallery canvas where painting would normally be found. The location indicator at the bottom of the "wall" is colored the wood-tone of the frame, and as you drag the text left-to-right it changes to reflect where you are in the index. This screen has four levels of thumbnails and a row of navigation icons. Along the top row are views of the works of art. The second row contains pictures, audio, and Quicktime video of the Artists at work or discussing their art. The next row features commentary by the artists, the collector, and critics. The fourth row of thumbnail images contains news items and photographs providing a social context for the artists and paintings. This main screen can be viewed in three different ways: chronologically, alphabetically by artist, or by school and style of art. Clicking on any of the thumbnails brings it up as a full screen image.
The colors of the photographs in 24-bit, and even 8-bit color are gorgeous. The reproduction to me is vibrant, and since the monitor image is only 72 pixels per inch, I do not feel that color calibration and consistency is a critical issue. The into American Visions screen is 640x480 pixels, but the background is set to black. So there is no distraction when viewed on a larger monitor.
Clicking on the links button at the bottom of the screen brings up thumbnails of other information related to this image. These are the same thumbnails found on the main screen, but only those which are relevant to the selected artist. A links which is selected is automatically put into the background, but can be swapped with the painting for closer examination. The information includes simple photographs of artists in their environment, as shown above, and personal statements about their backgrounds. Several artists were strongly influenced by Jazz, and you can read or hear them talk about it, then actually listen to the music. Art reflects society, and the timeline view shows the current events of particular year, including a news summary and photographs of important events such as Vietnam protesters in 1968.
What is powerful about these links is being able to read about a painting or its creator while looking at, and easily bring up more information. But this is no different than flipping through many art books. It is the ability to show other types of media which brings American Visions to life.
My favorite example of this is looking at a Jackson Pollock painting while listening to him talk about the work and then actually watch him spewing paint in a Quicktime video. That is amazing, and is what sets multimedia apart.
American Visions is an entertainment title and it is an educational title. It brings the Neuberger collection to the user's home and is fun to explore, but I feel it falls short of being a virtual museum and in-depth research tool. One of my disappointments is not having a full listing of all the material on the disc. I would have liked to use an alphabetical list of all the artists and paintings to find specific works, instead of "clicking and dragging" through several layers. A "find" command, perhaps attached to the index, would also be helpful in searching. There is a bibliography buried two levels below the main page, but no other mention is made is of it. The designers fall short in not linking to the works of art this valuable reference for users who would like to learn more. At this, they fail to take advantage of what I feel hypermedia is all about, but perhaps art historians are not the title's target audience.
While American Visions is beautiful and brings art to life in a whole dimension, I am afraid that its market might be too limited, preventing the development of future similar titles. Perhaps Continuum can make the economics work through marketing muscle, but art collections are not general interest titles. And CD ROMS, even with 24-bit color, do not display well on coffee tables.