The Revenge Of The CD-ROM

Perhaps you youngsters are tiring of the old fart reminiscing about those early days of digital -- when Usenet and dial-up BBSes were the first user-driven social networks. When some of us used to travel 60 miles or more to attend "Computer Shows" in order to get 5.25-inch platters of shareware at 99 cents each. When a 120x120 pixel 4-color rendering of Princess Leia was what passed for PC cheesecake. When the stylings of Apogee's Commander Keen platform game were a revelation. Here. Take a glass of Country Time Lemonade and sit back. 

Part of the early '90s legacy of computing was the short-lived attempt to leverage the CD-ROM as a reference tool. News magazines, encyclopedia companies and even book publishers tried to plumb the seemingly bottomless pit of hundreds of MBs of data to create multimedia references. The idea was that our kids and curious adults were supposed to pop these silver discs into the noisy, whirring 2X CD drive and suffer half-minutes drive thrashes before seeing a pixelated video clip. Beside the inherent speed problems of most early CD drives, the multimedia CD-ROM was ahead of technology, user comfort with screen reading -- and just the use case of having to load a disc and read it at your desk. Nevertheless, there were a lot of creative efforts made at the time that got lost to history.



By the late '90s the genre had petered out and died, replaced nominally by the Web. Of course, what happened online was the usual Web site clutter. The CD-ROM was the original app, in that it offered a highly proprietary and controlled media experience. Traditional publishers from the book, newspaper and magazine world could experiment with a range of interfaces and architectures for information. On the Web, much of that innovation tended to be nudged out by site conventions and information templates. 

In some ways the iPad is reviving that genre, and we are starting to see a resurgence of refreshed CD-ROM ideas on the platform. If memory serves, National Geographic was an early tester of the multimedia CD-ROM format, and so it is heartening to see its World Atlas atop the bestseller list for iPad reference. On a CD, looking up a location as one would open an old atlas on a book self was a tedious exercise that undermined the purported convenience digital media was supposed to provide. On a tablet, however, it becomes a ready reference. National Geographic is also smart enough not to overdo. This app is not overwhelmed with bells and whistles. There is a globe you spin and tap to bring up a location. An index gives you a thumbnail sketch of the nation. Much has been learned about what people really do and don't need from these sorts of references.  

Book publishers have been rethinking their medium for apps, with mixed results. Obviously Oceanhouse Media and its line of animated and read-to-me Dr. Seuss titles is a huge app hit. There has been some fascinating work done by PadWorx ("Christmas Carol" and "Dracula") in which limited animation, music and sound effects try to enhance the reading experience. There is an air of gimmickry to this that leaves me as a reader unconvinced that reading itself needs to be "enhanced" per se. Likewise, there have been  other attempts to blend video interludes and sequences with text fiction. The early versions of the Vook series also struggled with this.

The multimedia picture book seems to be a safer route for mixing text with image, video and sound, however. Vook's recent celebration of The Beatles is really a coffee table book with embedded video. It begs for more of the interactivity we saw a few months' back from Al Gore's Our Choice book app, however. In that app, narration and interactive graphs succeed in deepening engagement and knowledge. Also the new and brilliant iPad rendering of T.S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land" is a remarkable example of using multimedia well-synchronized to breathe life into a poem that thoroughly befuddled and bored generations of lit students. I write about this app at length elsewhere today in the VidBlog, so I won't repeat myself. But it is just flat-out brilliant in its subtle use of interface and media to pique a reader's curiosity and move him into a deeper reconsideration of the poem.  

But the best example I know of the CD-ROM right now is BottleRocket's "Civil War Today," done for The History Channel. It leverages not only the tablet interface but its real-time accessibility. Starting with the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War just a few months ago, this app has been serving its users daily updates that correspond to news of that date 150 years ago. It is a fascinating four-year project through a deep and unprecedented immersion in the Civil War as lived by contemporaries. The app uses a newspaper-style interface (circa 1861) but links out to a range of daily diaries from a host of eyewitnesses, news stories, and background reference for context. This project takes some of the great ideas of the old multimedia CD-ROM and locates them in a medium, a use case, and a format that the old disc-based platform may have been waiting 15 years to find. Even better, it may offer a genuinely unique way of understanding and experiencing information.  

Ultimately, rethinking how information is presented, absorbed, understood was what the original designers of CD-ROMs were trying to do. The app, especially in tablet formats, gives us a second bat at having a genuine media revolution that is less about technology, access and distribution -- and more about imagining new ways to experience knowledge.

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