The Way Things Work

A CD-ROM review by Emily Classon

for Howard Besser's ILS 604 Winter 1996 class.

The Way Things Work CD-ROM is an entertaining multimedia package for technology fans, children, and people who want to learn about how things work. Covering everyday machines and complex inventions, this CD-ROM provides information about many different technological advances. David Macaulay's popular technology book becomes more entertaining in this interactive CD-ROM. Overall, the program appears to be designed for younger users because the interface and instructions are easy to follow. The package accurately claims that this CD-ROM is "perfect for anyone over 8 years old." This understandable CD-ROM also could appeal to older users who have less experience with computers or who want easy access to information about technology.

The Way Things Work is easy to load and to explore without instructions, which makes it easier for children to use. However, the CD-ROM does come with general loading and usage instructions. Inside the CD case is a sheet telling users to click on icons, red words, and the mammoth to find items and to start animation sequences. The on-screen help menu and clear interface help users learn how to use this CD-ROM.

The interface is easily understandable because colorful graphics and labels describe the available options. From any screen, the user can choose to return to the workshop, to go to an alphabetical list of machines, to study the principles of science, to learn the history of inventions, and to meet the inventors. There is also an alphabetical index of all the inventors and items found in this collection. The help option assists users with printing and exploring the CD-ROM. Each clickable path is clearly labeled so the user can navigate throughout the CD-ROM. Also, sounds and movement give feedback to the user by showing which item was chosen. For example, clicking on the flask icon for the workshop causes the liquid within to bubble. By receiving this feedback, the users would know to which part of the CD-ROM they were going. This motion and sound is helpful for the user who clicks on an index by mistake.

The user first encounters an inventor's workshop full of colorful gadgets and inventions, like the camera, light bulb, drill, and telephone. A voice describes the workshop and the idea of the CD-ROM, which helps people learn about how technology works. The user can click on most of the items in the workshop to make things happen. For example, clicking on the telephone causes it to ring. Although this screen may be fun to play with briefly, it does not provide as much information as the other parts of this CD-ROM. This workshop, however, could appeal to children because it is amusing to watch what the different items do.

Another factor which would appeal to children is the inventor's assistant, the woolly mammoth, who appears in many of the descriptions of technological inventions. The woolly mammoth demonstrates how different machines work by playing with them or by participating in the action. For example, in the record for the electric guitar, the woolly mammoth strums a chord on the instrument. The instructions and help menu tell the user to click on the woolly mammoth pictures in order to start the action. The woolly mammoth is entertaining for both children and for adults who may be young at heart.

Although the CD appears to be designed for children, because of the cute animals or movies, it also provides useful information for anyone wanting to learn about technology. To avoid some of the "childlike" items of this package, the user can choose not to click on the movies or on the woolly mammoth pictures.

In the A-Z of Machines index, the user chooses a letter to see which inventions are described. For example, the letter T would show pictures for a telephone, television, telescope, and other inventions. The index includes a drawing of the named item to help people who may not recognize the invention by name. Navigating through this index is easy and allows users to look at multiple drawings of inventions before choosing the individual one to examine first. The index provides users with a chance to learn about inventions about which they may not know. By clicking on an item, the user obtains the full record about the selected invention.

Each record shows a drawing of the invention with a textual description of how it works. Also, the parts within the drawing are labeled. Although the descriptions are presented in clear language, they contain technical terms which may be difficult for some users. The user can click on these words, which are highlighted in red, to open a window which provides an explanation of the word. This option is helpful for children or for people who are not as familiar with technology.

Other options within each record include mini-movies or action sequences and sounds. Clicking on a movie symbol or on the red words, such as "PLAY" starts the machine's action. The instructions and help menu also describe how to access these action sequences. Often people are used to show how the item works. For example, there is a picture of a drum with a miniature band of players on it in the percussion instruments record. By clicking on the "BEAT" command, the people begin to move. The drummer of the large drum plays a beat which makes the little people yell and fall. These action sequences may be enjoyable for children and could provide additional encouragement for exploring the CD-ROM. If these users like what they see within each record, they may continue to look for related inventions.

Also, the woolly mammoth may appear in the lower right corner of a record with a "See Also" sign. This option provides a list of related inventions and encourages further browsing through the CD-ROM. For example, the electric guitar has related connections to other musical instruments.

In the Principles of Science section of this CD-ROM, the user finds a map of major inventions, such as photography, pulleys, heat, sound, and telecommunications. When an item is selected, it moves and sounds like the real invention would. Again, a picture of the invention and a textual description appear for each item. For many of the records, a movie featuring the woolly mammoth is available. These movies are cute and could be fun for children. The movies show people using a technological invention to move or manipulate the woolly mammoth in some way. Voice recordings tell stories and describe the action while the movies play. Adults may find these movies annoying and can choose not to view them by not clicking on the movie option. These movies are entertaining, but they do not provide much additional information. For younger users, the movies might provide a basic understanding of how an invention works.

Another appealing feature of this CD-ROM is the link between the types of records. For example, a user learning about an item from the A-Z of Machines index can click on the Principles of Science to access the scientific principles concerning the invention. This function is possible across the other indexes as well.

The History option allows users to learn about inventions from particular time periods ranging from Antiquity to the Silicon Age. A timeline appears, which states the names of the periods and the relative dates. Examples of time periods which are available include the Industrial Revolution, the Steam Age, and the Silicon Age. By choosing on a time period, the user opens up an name and picture index of the inventions from that time. Clicking on an individual item recalls similar information as in the other indexes.

The Inventors option is in the format of a book with an alphabetical index along the edge of the "pages." By selecting a letter, the book opens to that page and presents information about inventions or inventors. Each page has a drawing of the inventor or of the item itself and a description of the history of the invention or the accomplishments of the inventor.

Overall, this multimedia CD-ROM package would be of interest to different users. The facility to use the program, the amusing movies and pictures, and the simple language could appeal to children. The descriptive elements within the records for each invention are informative and would provide these users with an idea of how different technologies work. Also, The Way Things Work could provide children with a useful introduction to computer and CD-ROM use. The cute aspects of the program, such as the woolly mammoth and the movies, could encourage young users to explore through the program and to learn more.

The clear and easy-to-navigate interface would appeal to people who have difficulty using computers. The graphics and text allow people to move through the program easily. Also, the index and help options provide further assistance if people are still confused about the program. The help index offers examples of how to navigate through the program and within individual articles. For a new user, this program provides simple practice for understanding how the CD-ROM technology works.

Adults could still find some benefits in this program besides being helpful for children. Adult users easily can access information about technological inventions and may be able to answer some questions which they may have. Also, many of these users could be interested in the movies or sound within this program because they can be entertaining.

Because many audiences can use this CD-ROM, it is recommended for educational and for home use. Schools and parents can use The Way Things Work to help children learn about computers, CD-ROMs, and about technology in general. Students could learn the history, purpose, and principles for many different inventions. At home, parents could encourage the education of their children while finding their own uses for this CD-ROM.

eclasson@sils.umich.edu


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