Technofile: A Magical Play-Off: Disney Versus IBM

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The Independent Culture
Crayolas and colouring books are cheap, widely available, and easy for children to use. Then along comes Big Blue. IBM Brings You Crayola Magic 3D Colouring Book, says the title (Iona, Windows, pounds 19.95). Why do you need IBM to bring you this? IBM's answer is that children can't do 3D rendering with crayons, because that's magic. The real answer is more down to earth. Children's drawing software has one outstanding advantage over its paper relations. It doesn't make a mess on the floor.

Though the I Can't Believe They Called It That disk has shading that brings out dinosaurs' bulky curves, the design of the screen that frames the drawing area is messy, and the same goes for a lot of the results produced by the tools in (my) unpractised hands.

Disney Magic Artist (Disney, Windows/Macintosh, pounds 39.99), which came out in the summer, is a much more satisfying product. I especially liked the tool that dusts the image with the hallmark Disney sparkle of stars.

But its appeal is more than tinsel and make-believe. In this clash of the corporate titans, Disney outshines IBM not only in magic - that is the company's raison d'etre after all - but in organisation, which is IBM's. In fact, Disney's Magic Artist (shown above) is one of the best CD-ROMs for children I've seen this year. If more of the titles currently on sale were as well designed and executed as this, the multimedia industry might be doing more than merely treading water.

THE PENPARTNER IS MIGHTIER THAN THE MOUSE

Disney's Magic Artist is now also available in combination with PenPartner, an A6-sized graphics tablet. At pounds 89.90, the package makes this device available at a much lower price than hitherto, pitching it at the family market for the first time.

It uses a stylus resembling a ballpoint pen, which may be easier for many children to use than a mouse; and above all, the pen is wire-less. For adults it is a refreshing echo of an earlier age, when one did not subconsciously feel that one's hand was as good as plugged into the computer. For children, it may serve as a healthy reminder of the most efficient graphic technology yet invented.

OBJECT LESSON

SAITEK PC DASH

The more sophisticated computer games become, the more complicated the moves. Where once you just had to master simple "jumps" and "attacks", each accomplished by pressing just one key, now games are far more sophisticated, and the risk is you'll spend more time learning complex combinations of keys to strike than you will actually playing. Enter Saitek's PC Dash, an oblong tray which replaces the computer keyboard and simplifies games-playing. Slide in the "command sheet" (little more than a piece of cardboard) for the game you want to play into the tray, run the inte-gral barcode reader across the sheet, and the buttons and touch-sensitive areas built into the tray will respond appropriately. Along with the command sheets provided, for popular games like Quake and Tomb Raider, you can download other command settings from the Internet, or create your own. And if you can't get used to it, you can always serve a round of drinks on it. Available from Dixons priced pounds 44.99. David Phelan

NET COUCH POTATOES

They've broken out of the study and they're making for the living- room. To blend into their new surroundings, computers such as NetStation are matt black, designed to look like satellite set-top boxes, and plug into the television. They are trying to get through the living-room door by offering Internet access at a fraction of the initial outlay for a desktop computer. NetStation retails at pounds 300, plus pounds 14.95 a month for a subscription to NetChannel, the Internet service provider to which the box is tied.

The biggest technical leap forward is the control unit, which resembles a television remote with a set of alphabet keys. At last: a computer peripheral you can lose down the side of the couch. And the couch is the place to be. A session with NetStation makes you appreciate how unapt that old term "surfing" was. Sitting at a desk, pecking at keys and clicking at buttons, is nothing like surfing. It's like a sedentary version of what the squirrels are doing in the parks at this time of year. The NetStation experience isn't like surfing either. It's persistent vegetative computer use, a radically new mode of human-machine interaction. Computers and desks make you mindful of time and money; sofas and televisions make you forget that this is all going on the phone bill.

What you don't forget, if you're used to accessing the Web through the usual channels, is how crisp and glittering your computer screen looks by comparison. On a television set, Web colours become dismayingly sour and sallow; graphics lose their edge. The effect isn't helped by the heavy- handed NetChannel interface. This will impress British Net neophytes even less than experienced users, since they will be inclined to judge it by the standards of BBC "ident" sequences, the summit of the televisual art. NetChannel also loses points for including one of those infantile animated figures that can be consulted for advice. Url was probably devised by somebody too young to remember British Telecom's character Busby. People don't like being told what to do by cartoons.

The hand-held controller is okay for short addresses, or for the pre- configured "channels" offered by NetChannel (which includes material from this paper and the daily Independent). For the longer addresses that occur outside the domains of commerce or light entertainment, or for writing e-mail messages, a keyboard is available. Since it's not much bigger than the television-style remote, and likewise connects with the box via infra- red signals, it would make sense to supply it as the standard controller instead of as an "optional" extra. But that would smack of computers, and the NetStation/NetChannel strategy is to reach new markets by making the Net more like television.

In the long term, it's envisaged that the two will converge. Viewers will switch between Net and television without noticing the difference. A car advert might have associated webpages with price details and contacts for local dealers. American sports fans will be able to call up the statistical tables they love so much, at any point during play. And if Judge Zobel is any guide to the future, Court TV viewers will be able to read judicial rulings the moment they are posted on the Web.

In the shorter term, Web television promoters hope that a genre of made- for-TV websites will arise. That depends on whether the idea takes off which it may well do, given further development. But another possibility is that it carves out a niche among computer enthusiasts who fancy logging on from a horizontal position. And then there's e-mail. Marketing NetStation as a device that people can give their computer-illiterate parents is the first step. Smart salespeople will then discreetly mention the killer app: e-mail means never having to phone home.

TECHNOFILE'S HOME PAGES CAN BE FOUND AT: http://www.poptel.org.uk/technofile

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