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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015