Joseph Gallivan samples the latest crop of CD-Roms from the US
Everyone knows that the funkiest multimedia comes from the West Coast. Here are a few of the latest American CD-Rom offerings: note that you will have to buy some of them from the US, but the good news is that you are unlikely to pay the full list price.

Material World (Starpress) is an interesting experiment in coffee-table multimedia. To illustrate the idea of the global village, 30 families from around the world were photographed and taped for a week: it could be subtitled "Lifestyles of the Lower- Middle Classes - Where Available". It's not the sort of thing you'd normally pay for unless you were in it, but it grows on you.

Material's the word, too, since each family appears in a group shot with all their possessions spread out in front of their home. From the 45- foot couch in Kuwait to the Buddhist shrine outside a hut in Nepal, so shall ye know them by their shopping.

The whole world is on display, with their bass loudspeakers, broken cooking pots, hatchbacks and stick furniture. The British look rained-on and unhealthy. The Americans are Baptist Republicans from Texas (Dad has given his son a My Gun Safety colouring book). The Japanese live like sardines. So it goes. Look out for the Africans. Addictive stuff.

For Windows PC 486/33MHz, 4MB RAM, or Mac System 7.0, 5MB RAM, street price $39.95. Olivetti Starpress Europe (tel: 00 392 483 66741).

Gadget is a stylish Japanese thriller/mystery game rather like a simplified version of Myst. You are an agent seeking a scientist called Horselover, and are mixed up in a Bond-like plot to flee the dying Earth. The action takes place on a train filled with unhelpful and very ugly passengers, from whom you collect a series of gadgets (we're talking things with groovy old valves here, not stuff from the Innovations catalogue). The styling is beautiful and the mystery is compelling; you won't have a clue why things are happening.

The structure of the plot, which is symbolised by the topological railway map - seven stations in a row, two termini - lacks Myst's chaotic, elliptical nature. And the train won't leave the station until you have completed every action in the right sequence, which rather damps down the interactivity. But lovers of all things Japanese will relish its anal retentiveness and its starchy subtitles. And unlike Myst, it takes three hours to complete, not three weeks.

For Windows PC 486/33MHz, 8MB RAM, or Mac System 7.0, 8MB RAM, list price $79.99. (Synergy, tel: 001 415 437 2000 and ask for audience relations) or e-mail for more information.

CD-Rom seems the obvious format to bring magazines to life but, so far, those such as Medio have failed to live up to their promise. The latest to launch is a bi-monthly called, er, Launch. Clicking on elements in a cartoon cityscape takes you to music, game demos, "video finger painting" and film. Ho-hum, cue the big budget trailers. The music selection is the strongest, featuring excerpts from 20 new albums. If you didn't mind the idea of having your hard disc frisked by Big Brother, you'll probably get a kick out of Launch's new feature - built-in software that tracks where you spend your time on the CD-Rom. This information you obediently download to the editorial office.

For Windows PC 486/33MHz, 8MB RAM, or Mac System 7.1, 8MB RAM, $35.99 annual subscription (tel: 001 310 260 7786).

True to form, it's taken one of the best multimedia (performance) artists alive to produce a CD-Rom that really is intellectually and aesthetically challenging. Laurie Anderson (she of O Superman fame), with designer Hsin-Chien Huang, has made the amusing Puppet Motel, which makes strong connections between many of the themes of her artwork over her 35-year career. There are 33 "rooms'' to explore. For example, hall of time, fax, love line, ouija board, ear, shadow and plug. You also get 16-bit CD-quality sound and, for the wired, there's a Web connection for adding extra video. The sections are linked by music (an hour's worth) and graphics, which compensates for the current slowness of the medium. There are stories, textual tricks and cursor jokes in each section, and rewards for frequent visits. All told, this is the best art CD-Rom available.

For Mac only, System 7.1, 6MB RAM, pounds 39.99. UK distributor: Astrion (tel: 0181-202 0011; fax: 0181-202 3300).