James A. Ringold
Multimedia CDROM Review


This paper was written for the Winter 1996 version of the course Impact of New Information Resources taught at the University of Michigan's *School of Information and Library Studies* by Howard Besser. It should not be read out of that context


The word "multimedia" is a recent addition to the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary, which insists upon hyphenating the word, broadly defines the concept as "...designating or pertaining to a form of artistic, educational, or commercial communication in which more than one medium is used. " (Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, 1989) The first use noted was in 1962, and in 1968 the word was apparently still novel:

1968 Sun (Baltimore) 4 July A. 16/3 The notes of one conference we attended a few weeks ago..show that speakers were using such terms..as..multi-media and multi-mode curriculum.

However, by 1971, hype was already strongly associated with multimedia presentations:

1971 Black Scholar Jan. 20/2 As originator of the practice of reading poetry to jazz, he not only stitched backwards and forward in his lineage and idiom, but wrought a new force in the now obscenely exaggerated concept of multi-media.

In 1996, the wide availability of multimedia CDROMs has increased the level of hype. However, many truly useful and enjoyable CDROMS have been produced. This dichotomy was apparent as I attempted to choose a product to review for this paper.

Originally, I planned to review Bill Gates' The Road Ahead. The Microsoft founder's CDROM does meet the OED definition for "multi-media"; in other words, it does incorporate video and sound. Unfortunately, Mr. Gates' idea of interactivity seems to be allowing one to choose the order in which one views grainy, jerky Microsoft commercials. Since no one wants to read or write more than a paragraph on such a disappointment, I chose to review a truly wonderful product that capitalizes on the educational potential of multimedia: Peterson Multimedia Guides' North American Birds.

Roger Tory Peterson was the inventor of the modern field guide. Prior to the 1940s, the only accepted way to identify a bird was "through the sites of a gun." Peterson originated the idea that birds could be identified with a book that provided descriptions, color plates, and the location of key "field marks." Thus Peterson was the ideal person to expand his system to incorporate the potential of multimedia CDROMs. The new system is not only more fun and entertaining, it educates everyone from children to serious birders in exciting new ways.

The program begins with a video clip in which Peterson, a very reassuring older gentleman, patiently and succinctly explains how to proceed. The excitement in his voice is evident. A model resembling the WWW "home page" is used, and a "home" button is always present. Similarly a "back" button (called backtrack) is employed. Six initial options are offered on an image sensitive map. Peterson's Perspective contains video with Peterson on how to watch birds, as well "multimedia essays on the world of birds." All the presentation are well done, the video and audio quality are good. However, a series of borders cannot disguise the fact that the video is viewed in 1/16th of a screen. Options contains help files, a glossary, and a list of birding resources. Lifelist allows one to keep very minimal notes on bird sightings A nice feature is the ability to automatically add a bird to your personal list from any point in the program in which you are viewing that bird.

The really good features are found in the next three sections, Visual Category Guide, Bird Finder and Skill Builder. The Visual Category Guide resembles the familiar layout from the field guides. Peterson's beautiful art work ( depicted at 68,000 colors ) looks great on the screen. Field marks and descriptions can be found at the push of a button. However, the CDROM goes well beyond the field guide. First, the disk combines two books and thus covers all of North America. Secondly, the power of multimedia is employed. Bird songs and calls are provided for over 900 species. Video clips demonstrate points about behavior. The art work is supplemented with field photographs. Range maps are linked to each birds. The elegance and educational content is phenomenal. The information is provided in a graphically pleasing and visually entertaining manner. Part of the power of the multimedia presentation comes from its ability to simulate nature more closely than a book. In nature, one sees a bird, hears its call, sees its behavior, notes the time of year; in time all these factors are associated. The CDROM successfully mimics this approach.

The Bird Finder allows one to filter the full list of birds based on a variety of criteria. For instance, by pushing attractive buttons on a simple interface, I could choose the time of year, the state I am in, the approximate size of the bird, and the colors I saw and the program would return a short list of birds. I could then double click on any bird on the list to see the full information about that species. The Bird Finder is a wonderful tool that imitates the thought process of experienced birders. My only criticism is that both migratory periods ( Spring and Fall ) fall under the "Summer" season, a decision that was counterintuitive.

The Skill Builder provides games to "test and improve your birding skills." One can try to identify silhouettes or depictions of birds, and a system of awarding points has been devised. Skill level can be set at any level from "nestling" to "adult." For instance, at the "nestling" level, I correctly identified a Philadelphia flycatcher, because there was only one flycatcher on the list. At the adult level, 200 birds, 19 of them flycatchers, were on the list. I had considerably less luck. The games are quite fun, though I see no need to compete for points. A great graphical interface is marred by the clumsy placement of the game's dialog box. The large box frequently obscures the very bird one is supposed to identify!

Peterson's North American Birds is without a doubt the best multimedia CDROM I have ( for lack of a better word ) interacted with. I look forward to using it often. Yet there is still one advantage to the traditional field guide: it is better suited for the field.


Author: James A. Ringold
Last Updated: 3/10/96