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As multimedia and networked computers invade the traditional turf of newspapers, magazines, the broadcast media, and the venerable book, writers such as myself take consolation in one thought: that as the means of conveying content multiply, so will the need for effective “content providers.” Yet the sameness of the multimedia software filling the shelves of most computer outlets today raises doubt about whether there is, or will ever be, significant demand for original multimedia content. New-Age puzzle games such as Myst and Qin and slash-and-burn combat simulations (Doom, Quake, and Duke Nukem come to mind) seem to take up the most shelf space, followed by reference works such as Microsoft’s Encarta and Cinemania that exploit the sheer storage capacity of a CD-ROM without adding much in the way of interactivity or graphical elegance. Just as in commercial television, the medium’s vast possibilities-at least for now-go largely unexploited.

Yet one company has recently restored some of my optimism. Over the last year and a half, Corbis Corp. has introduced a line of educational/entertainment CD-ROMs whose rich content and sophisticated style put most other multimedia software to shame. Devoted to virtually inexhaustible subjects such as Leonardo da Vinci, Paul Cezanne, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the Manhattan Project, the discs show how the skillful use of technology can enhance-rather than simply transmit-the meaning in archival and contemporary visual and audio material. The programs outshine other software in much the same way that the best PBS programming, such as Nova, The American Experience, and filmmaker Ken Burns’s The Civil War-highlights the intellectual poverty of most commercial TV.

Corbis Corp., set up in 1989 by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, is mainly an electronic archive that owns and licenses the rights to digital representations of millions of photographs and paintings, including famous collections such as the former Bettman Archive. This may sound like a surprising source for high-brow educational software. But Corbis’s own images are at the core of its CD-ROM titles, and it was shrewd of the company to hire a top-notch team of producers to prove that its copyrighted archives can be recycled as great multimedia entertainment.

All six of Corbis’s current CD-ROM titles, available in Windows ‘95 and Macintosh formats, are worth the investment. Here I’ll comment only on those titles related to science and technology: Volcanoes: Life on the Edge; Critical Mass: America’s Race to Build the Atomic Bomb; and Leonardo da Vinci. Of the three, Volcanoes is the most conventional, but also, in a way, the most arresting. The program revolves around award-winning science photojournalist Richard Ressmeyer’s 14-month assignment in 1991 and 1992 to photograph dormant and active volcanoes-and the human cultures that alternately thrive and cower beneath them-for National Geographic magazine. The hundreds of stark, beautiful photographs by Ressmeyer, reproduced here in remarkably vivid color and high resolution, are illuminated by a lean, poetic script-narrated by British actress Helen Mirren-that recalls the spare yet information-dense photo captions in National Geographic. Dozens of “episodes” dot the point-and-click map of the globe at the program’s core, detailing past disasters, such as the entombment of 23,000 Colombians in 1985 under a mud flow from the Nevado del Ruiz volcano, and disasters waiting to happen, for example the eruption prefigured by the present-day resurgence of the caldera beneath California’s Long Valley resort area, the site of an apocalyptic eruption some 760,000 years ago. Also retold are Ressmeyer’s own scary moments, such as
the time he and a guide were nearly trapped on Italy’s Mt. Etna by a wayward river of lava.

At any point in an episode, the user can pause the narration to examine an image at leisure, use the extensive glossary to investigate obscure volcanological terms like “lahar” (volcanic mudflows that can travel as fast as 100 mph) or “aa” (crusty, slow-moving lava), or read about the history, physical characteristics, and death tallies of notorious volcanoes such as Krakatau and Tambora (the latter’s 1815 eruption killed 92,000).

For users more interested in Ressmeyer’s images than in the program’s bells and whistles, a slide-show function cycles through the disc’s 480 photographs. Overall, the program has the feel of a visual voyage of the HMS Beagle-part science lesson, part anthropological expedition, part travelogue-but with the difference that the chapters can be explored in any order and to any desired depth, so that delving into the program is like editing one’s own nature documentary. A rumbling piano score, Mirren’s breathlessly grim narration, and Ressmeyer’s own reflections on the grueling assignment foster an appropriate mix of dread and reverence for these spectacles of nature.

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