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Barbie goes hi-tech

Can playing with a digital dolly help to get little girls interested in computing?
There is no escape. Barbie, the ubiquitous doll of unfeasible vital statistics and a wardrobe to die for, has entered the multimedia arena, putting liberal-minded parents into a quandary.

Despite the (dubious) joys for little girls of playing with an ever-increasing number of Barbie products, the chance for the same girls to learn computer skills through their mini idol on CD-Rom is irresistible for parents who are worried about daughters losing out in the technology stakes.

The Barbie brand is of vast importance to Mattel, as an estimated nine out of 10 girls in the US own at least one Barbie doll. With the launch of Mattel Media, the company is stamping the Barbie name on to a range of CD-Roms, with a Web site for back-up information, including frequently asked questions about the technical specifications of how the product works.

The first launch on CD-Rom is Barbie Fashion Designer, a clever little product that helps girls to learn the basics of using a CD-Rom. Users are presented with a series of clothing choices for their virtual doll - from lots of different beach outfits, daywear and, of course, wedding gowns - and can select both print styles and colour options from a customised palette. They then choose to preview a chosen wardrobe combination in Barbie's dressing-room before she sashays down the catwalk in glorious 3-D Technicolor - to the rapturous applause of fashion journalists. Barbie's catwalk stroll was developed by designers at Mattel Media who studied Claudia Schiffer's moves on the international catwalks. So now you know.

The best thing about Barbie Fashion Designer is that girls unconsciously learn the skills of how to choose and modify options and move between screens on the computer through the navigational bar. They can also print out their designs using the printer-compatible fabrics and use pens and decorations included in the pack to let their imaginations run wild. Girls have to design a complete outfit: if they try to send Barbie down the catwalk without accessories, an error message comes up telling the user to make sure Barbie is fully dressed.

Other CD-Roms that Mattel has launched for Christmas include Barbie Print 'n' Play (a basic word-processing and design tool for girls to create personalised stationery) and Barbie Storymaker. The Storymaker CD-Rom is very innovative and teaches girls not only computer skills but film- production techniques as well. Users create a mini-film, choosing from location options, Barbie outfits and a choice of Barbie friends, and learn how to cut, storyboard and preview clips before adding a title and credits sequence.

Marketed within toy shops' own Barbie displays, the new range of CD-Roms should prove popular with budding designers and film-makers. Maybe now at last little girls will be fighting their brothers to get on to the computern

Barbie Fashion Designer, pounds 39.99 (Funsoft, 0181-748 7565)