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Two Bilingual CD-ROMS:

"The First Emperor"

and

"I Photograph to Remember/Fotografío para recordar"

These two titles represent attempts to explore the many possibilities in the new realm of multimedia CD-ROMs. One explores the way to present a vast amount of information in an innovative way; the other uses the format as an elegant and moving art form. Though their purposes are quite different, they are linked by their use of bilingual narration. Both are innovative and thought provoking.

"The First Emperor"

"The First Emperor" is the earlier of the two. It concerns the discovery in March 1974 in Xian, the ancient capital of China, of the tomb of Qin Shi Huang Di (221-206 B.C.), the first emperor of China. Among this ruler's many accomplishments was the unification of China, the standardization of Chinese writing, and the completion of the Great Wall. The contents of the tomb included a magnificent archaeological treasure: over 7,000 ceramic figures of warriors and horses so finely detailed that the soldiers can be identified by province and the breed of horse recognized.

"The First Emperor" grew out of a project begun in 1984 at Simmons College in Boston and supported by grants from (ironically given the current political climate) The National Endowment for the Humanities. This CD is truly a technical marvel and ambitious undertaking. The story of the discovery is told through maps, text, timelines, images, a glossary with the basic sounds of the Chinese language, and video clips. The viewer is presented with a clear menu with which to navigate the information. As the viewer journeys through the disc, every turn is a surprise and a delight.

The reader is able to click on each highlighted word to call up an illustration related to the text. For example, a sentence describing the varieties in the figures (bearded, intricate hair style, slanted eyes) is hyperlinked to a photograph of representative figures. A map of the Great Wall can be clicked on for a short video of that part of the wall with an historical narration in either English or Chinese, and accompanied by fine Oriental music. However, the presentation is only partially bilingual. While the narration can be heard in either English or Chinese, the accompanying on-screen text is only in English. And while the disc was bilingual, the instructions were only in English.

Despite the magnificent technical achievement, there were several flaws in the execution, some of them quite careless. One section of the Great Wall video is missing the Chinese narration, although it is enchanting to pan down the wall accompanied only by the music. The short video sections would end quite abruptly giving the impression that the interruption was an unintentional mechanical flaw. Some of the sound was clear and sharp, while in other spots there was much crackling and breaking up. The toggle between the English and Chinese narration was not smooth and a little jarring to the ear. I also felt it was a drawback that the oral narration of each section was identical to the written text, thus passing up the opportunity to provide additional information.

The image presentation was by far the most successful part of the presentation. Somehow, though, the constant switching back and forth between text and image, while dazzling, seems to detract from the comprehension. The viewer is drawn to click on each highlighted word to bring up an image, thus breaking up the flow of the text. In the end it is only the images that remain in the mind, not the words.

"I Photograph to Remember/Fotografío para recordar"

"I Photograph to Remember/Fotografío para recordar" is a work by Pedro Meyer, the renowned Mexican photographer. The 58-year-old artist knows how to handle the new medium to the best advantage. Here are presented almost 100 black and white photographs that the author took of his parents during the last three years of their lives as they battled cancer. The photos are moving and poignant. At first glance, the presentation seems little more than an animated coffee table book, but from the author's first words we are drawn into a feeling of great intimacy with him.

The images are sharp and clear. They move by smoothly, almost seamlessly, accompanied by low music composed especially for the artist. Again the viewer has a choice of narration, in this case English or Spanish. Both are read by the artist. The viewer has the choice of viewing the photographs in a linear manner, going backwards or forward in the presentation, or switching the language of narration. There are no jarring dissonances, no jerky movements. For attentive bilingual listeners, there is the special treat of the slight variations in narration which makes the telling seem even more intimate, as if the narrator were retelling an often told and emotional story to a new listener.

No detail has been overlooked. The enclosed instruction book is well written and clear, both in English and Spanish. The artist has chosen a traditional art form, black and white photography, added narration and blended it with a new age technology to create a distinct art form. The surprising part is how effortless and pleasing is the result.

Conclusion

These two products have very different goals, and so perhaps for that reason it is unfair to compare them. However, "I Photograph to Remember" seems to more completely have achieved its aims. In the end, there was a sense of closure and completeness, a deep satisfaction at having participated. It has achieved the blending of an old art form with technology to create a profoundly moving experience.

The great achievement of "The First Emperor" was its images, but for all its dazzling technique and strong visual images it left me hungering for more. It seemed as if depth had been sacrificed for breadth. I felt as if I'd only been given a taste of this exciting and historical event. I wanted the depth of information offered by a long and well-written book. Just the same, it represents a milestone in exploring the possibilities of multimedia presentation.

Both of these products represent fine achievements and bode well for the future in both using the medium as an art form and as a vehicle for presenting information in an innovative way.

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