Intelligent Machines

Setting A Standard In Multimedia Software

Volcanoes: Life on the Edge; Critical Mass: America’s Race to build the Atomic Bomb; and Leonardo da Vinci

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.

This story is part of our March/April 1998 Issue
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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.

If Volcanoes’s scope is panoramic, Critical Mass is deliberately claustrophobic. The disc’s opening sequence sets the tone by recreating the dark, drizzly conditions near Alamogordo, New Mexico, in the wee hours of July 16, 1945-a gloom that soon gave way to nuclear morning. After viewing a newsreel-style overview of the political crisis that drove the nation’s top physicists to unleash the horrific power of the bomb, the user is deposited in a small office, cluttered with papers, folders, and filing cabinets, that serves as the graphical gateway to the other parts of the program. Though a bit hokey-probably consciously so-the office lends a tangible sense of depth to the program, as if one were actually stepping into the past.

Behind a desk in the office, in fact, are cutouts of a grandfatherly Niels Bohr, the perpetually abstracted Robert Oppenheimer, a congenial Enrico Fermi, and a brash young Richard Feynman. Clicking on any of these great physicists or others represented in portraits and newspaper clippings launches biographical slide shows full of personal detail. Beyond a window in the office a slice of Los Alamos is visible, leading to the program’s most remarkable feature: a digital rendering of the top-secret installation as it appeared on a sunny day in 1945. From seven standpoints along the dusty roads lacing through the facility-known to the outside world only as P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico-the visitor can pan 360 degrees to view the fenced-in town’s labs, machine shops, hut-like residences, dining and lecture halls, and other hastily erected structures. Clicking on highlighted buildings calls up interior shots and commentary from Roger Mead, archivist of the current-day Los Alamos National Laboratory. Sound effects, from clanky cafeteria hubbub to click-clacking adding machines and tremulous big band saxophones, serve as reminders that this was a bustling place where, at the height of the bomb-building effort, some 6,000 people lived and worked.

Rounding out the program are a detailed timeline, an illustrated scientific glossary, an archive of declassified Manhattan Project documents, a collection of nuclear-age images and animation (including the classic civil defense cartoon “Duck and Cover”), and an “atomic atlas” mapping the nuclear detonations, atomic power plants, uranium deposits, and reactor accidents of the 20th century. Much of this material is available elsewhere, and no one who has read histories such as Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb will find much that’s original, surprising, or even critical in Critical Mass. What will delight atomic aficionados, historians of science, and the uninitiated lay user alike, however, is the way the program turns 1940s Los Alamos, the almost mythical crucible of our Cold-War obsessions, back into a tangible, gritty, even familiar-looking place.

Unlike Critical Mass, Leonardo da Vinci is built around a historical source hitherto unavailable, at least to everyone but Leonardo scholars and billionaires: the Codex Leicester. The Codex, an intricately illustrated notebook created between 1508 and 1513, was Leonardo’s study for an unrealized treatise on the behavior of water. Bill Gates purchased the Codex from Armand Hammer in 1994, and the Corbis CD-ROM reproduces all 72 pages so realistically that it almost feels as if one were handling the original parchment. Corbis’s look at “the original Renaissance man” is both the company’s best CD-ROM to date and the hardest to do justice to in print.

Of course, a Leonardo notebook wouldn’t make much sense to anyone unschooled in reading Leonardo’s peculiar mirror-image 15th-century Italian. A delightful Corbis invention called the Codescope, however, begins to make the penetrating observations of this painter-engineer-inventor accessible. The Codescope is, in effect, a magical magnifying glass that, when placed over Leonardo’s original script, flips it around so that it reads from left to right. It also overlays a transcription of the Italian text in legible Roman characters or converts the Italian transcription into modern-day English. Even with all that help, though, following the arguments in the Codex can be tricky. While Leonardo’s reasoning about the nature of turbulence, the existance of whether there is water on the surface of the moon, or the origins of rivers is impeccably logical, it proceeds from a pre-Newtonian view of nature so distant from our own as to make Leonardo’s conclusions seem, at times, ludicrous. He argues, for example, that the water in a lake or river imposes no weight on the ground beneath, “as shown by the thin grass waving through water at the bottom … which has almost the lightness of water itself; instead, had the water gravity over it, it would be compressed and almost petrified.”

Of course, it’s not what Leonardo concluded but the way he thought about the world that makes him one of modernity’s most important progenitors, and that’s what the Corbis program really brings to life. Interpretive remarks by Leonardo scholars, multimedia “tours” and “exhibits” on the Codex’s main themes (including animated versions of some of Leonardo’s illustrations and experiments), a detailed timeline of the Renaissance, and a virtual art gallery add to the central Codex. They also show how Leonardo repeatedly returned to themes such as flow, whether it be that of a river or a lock of hair. I, for one, had never before noticed the backdrop of tiny lakes, rivers, and bridges behind the Mona Lisa. Content providers as effective as Corbis, it’s clear, need never fear a change of medium.

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