See Naples on screen

Junk your print encyclopaedias; the new buzz-word is multimedia. Bridget Martyn enters the dazzling world of interactive CD-ROM.
TWO young civil servants posted to the Ukraine return to their flat in Kiev after a late-night party. They slip a CD-ROM disc into their multimedia PC. An article on the Ukraine, as well as prompts for photographs, maps, and audio clips appear on the screen. It's 1am and the room fills with the sound of the Ukrainian national anthem. The tune sounds like any other national anthem played on an electronic synthesizer, but its audience is uncritical, rollercoasting over text, pictures, animation and sound. They are hooked, as Bill Gates planned that they should be, on Microsoft's Encarta Multimedia Encyclopaedia.

The phenomenon of interactive encyclopedias on disc is so new that the public may be forgiven for not knowing about the relative merits of each of the five major contenders. These are Compton's Interactive Encyclopaedia (pounds 69.99); The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopaedia (pounds 199) whose first edition appeared in 1986; Hutchinson's Multimedia Encyclopedia (pounds 59.99); Microsoft's Encarta (pounds 85); and the World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia (pounds 99), published in July this year and based on its own best-selling print encyclopedia. But if the developers of most of these products have their way, few people will choose their encyclopedia for its merit; the CD-ROMs will be delivered to them free, as part of a soft- or hardware "bundling". Thereafter, the annually updated disc will be offered at a discounted rate, and the customer is hooked.

So what is there to choose between them? Encarta wins points for its 26,000 entries, but these average out at 280 words each compared to World Book's 17,000 articles offering three times more words per entry. Compton offers 15 hours of sound compared to Encarta's 8, but its 34,000 articles are shorter than Encarta's. At 4 million words in total, the articles in Hutchinson are frustratingly short: more like a dictionary than an encyclopedia. Christine Keeler gets six lines; Frida Kahlo only five. The user looking up a person in Compton and Grolier will find they frequently fail to give the nationality of the subject, and unhelpfully embed dates of birth and death in the text. There is some slack in Compton's 9 million words and 35,000 articles: what do we learn from its statement that "the plan of the Acropolis is quite complicated. It was carried out over hundreds of years"; and why waste precious memory by demonstrating the sound of a machine gun?

Although World Book offers the best global coverage, like Encarta, Grolier, and Compton it is loaded with information primarily intended for American users. I doubt whether any child, American or not, would get marks for copying out this snippet on Queen Elizabeth I from Grolier: "Queen of England, famous for the glamour of her court, the success of her policies, and her long-preserved virginity". Compton's, instead of telling us in the first line where the port of Naples lies, offers us, as information, "See Naples and Die". In Hutchinson, the only one of the five that is British-made, you will find a largely white and imperial interpretation of history.

As befits the world's leading software company, Encarta is full of technical wizardry: a MindMaze game, for example, that lets you loose in a medieval castle accompanied by mock-Elizabethan electronic music and an American voice-over. More impressively, you can at the click of the mouse rotate the globe, zoom in on the continent of your choice, zoom down into a country, into a city, and land on a rudimentary street map. But you will remain severely disoriented, because Encarta does not show latitudes, longitudes, the equator, the Tropics of Cancer and of Capricorn, or the Arctic Circle.

Sound clips are one of the most attractive features of multimedia encyclopedias, and these vary hugely. Compton (which is aimed at the younger reader) murders most of its music on synthesizers. Encarta, strong on jazz and pop, offers far and away the most numerous and widest-ranging sound clips. World Book has the fewest: pre-I7th century and modern Western music, folk, jazz, pop, and non-Western music are all missing. Hutchinson has included the most memorable pronouncements of world leaders, and the widest selection of birdsong.

Each of the encyclopedias offers a Timeline feature: a progression from earliest times to the present. Encarta endearingly begins with a pictogram of Adam and Eve some 15 million years ago, Compton kicks off with the birth of the earth 4.6 billion years ago precisely; Grolier sees history beginning with the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, World Book prefers to start their timeline rolling with the birth of the dinosaur, 570 million years ago, and Hutchinson, like Encarta, is homo-centric, cautiously announcing the "Origin of the Human Species" 4 million years BC.

A strong appeal of CD-ROM encyclopedias is their imaginative and wide- ranging use of multimedia. I have known a child of three teach himself to operate his parents' computer mouse to conjure up the graphic fury of a hurricane or a cheetah loping through the savannah, or to follow a high-speed train as it whistles through a station to demonstrate the Doppler effect. Multimedia illustrations of scientific concepts can act as tremendous teaching aids.

The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia is based on the Academic American Encyclopedia: worthy and respectable, if somewhat dull. It comes as a shock, then, to hit Grolier's multimedia features: 60-second audio-visual essays entitled 'A World of Darkness and Light' (ranging from the 5th to the 15th centuries); 'Awakenings' (a shot around the globe in the 15th century), and 'The Age of Wonder' (a view from a spacecraft of key persons and events in the 16th century).

World Book's multimedia elements, although fewer than in many of the other encyclopedias, are intelligently chosen and of high quality. Nowhere else for example, are you offered in the article on the heart an animation of the circulation of the blood, a coronary by-pass, the case-history of a heart attack, a heart-lung machine, and a cross-section of the heart of an earthworm, a fish, a frog, and a dog.

The development of multimedia CD-ROM is still in its infancy. Revised editions appear almost monthly, their technologies improved and their content modernised. It is estimated that sales of CD-ROM products will increase in 1996 by at least 150%, and that half of these will be in the home market, while over the past two years the Department for Education and Employment has made pounds 9.5 million available to provide primary schools with multimedia equipment. Multimedia encyclopedias are here to stay.