Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 10, Number 8: July 2010


The CD-ROM Project

Starting the Dig

For those FriendFeeders who wondered about the “digital medium archaeology project” I mentioned earlier this spring: this is it. I reviewed title CD-ROMs (CD-ROMs as extended books or multimedia objects, as opposed to CD-ROMs as carriers for software) from 1994 through 2000 in Database (which became EContent), CD-ROM Professional (which disappeared) and Library Hi Tech News. How many did I review? At least 165, including only those that got full write-ups; probably more than 200 in all. I kept some of the better title CD-ROMs—somewhere between 60 and 65 titles.

Some title CD-ROMs (and a few DVD-ROMs) were the extended books of the 1990s. Others were multimedia exploration spaces. Still others had different roles. Libraries have generally not thrown away books published from 1994 through 2000 unless they weren’t being used, and that’s also true for audio CDs. I suspect the years have been less kind to title CD-ROMs in libraries and elsewhere.

I thought it would be interesting to see how these discs fare 10 to 16 years later. Specifically:

·         Will the CD-ROM load and run under Windows 7 without employing compatibility technology?

·         How does it perform—does it still seem worthwhile?

·         What did I have to say about it when it was new? (In most cases, I had a formal rating.)

·         Is some version of this title still available?

·         Is there a replacement for it on the web? If not, have we lost anything significant?

I’m going into this blind. I thought the reviews were even older than they are—but still, they were all done before Windows for home PCs became an actual operating system (that is, while Windows was still a graphical interface running on MS-DOS), and even the most recent are a decade old. I’m taking titles more-or-less at random, from two stacks of discs and six boxes on a bookcase.

I know my current public library still has a fair selection of CD-ROMs. I suspect many others do. Maybe they’re still valuable? Maybe not?

So, here we go…

RedShift 3

RedShift is a virtual planetarium designed to display “the sky from almost any place and any time.” The primary program opens a window onto the sky and provides a set of controls to zoom in or out, position yourself as a viewer (on Earth or almost anywhere else “within 9999 astronomical units of the Sun”), move around the sky, change the time (between 4999 BC and 9999 AD), determine what appears (including constellation outlines if desired) and find out more about given objects in the sky.

There are also quite a few astronomy tours, some with narration; a set of animations making up the story of the universe; a dictionary of astronomy (heavily hyperlinked); a substantial photo gallery; and more. The package—a traditional title CD-ROM cardboard longbox, 9”x10”x2”—includes the CD-ROM itself (with 660MB of data), a 95-page user’s guide and a registration card. I received it as one of the Codie Award nominees for 1998. At the time, it sold for $50 and was a Maris production, distributed by Piranha Interactive.

Installation and operation

The good news: It installs under Windows 7. The only difficulty is that it requires QuickTime (remember Apple and non-proprietary standards?)—and will accept no substitute, such as Windows MediaPlayer to play .mov files. (Best guess: It has no way of testing for file associations.) So I had to install a very old version of QuickTime—or, rather, a QuickTime plug-in for Internet Explorer (and only Internet Explorer).

The better news: It works under Windows 7—and, by and large, works pretty well. I could move the planetarium window (running RedShift’s simulation engine) to my larger display and maximize it; support windows (usually small and self-sizing) could stay on the secondary display. Tours that use the simulation engine did use the full display, albeit somewhat choppily; movies ran in a fixed 320x320 (I think) window, and some introductory material ran in a fixed 640x480 window. As with many well-designed CD-ROMs of the time—back when disk storage was at a premium—RedShift primarily runs from the CD-ROM, with about 5MB installed on the hard disk.

I’m not a stargazer, but I’d say the program is still a worthwhile planetarium and the tours, movies and dictionaries are still useful. The photo gallery was great for its time, but 800 relatively small pictures don’t seem so impressive in 2010.

What I said in 1998

My review appears in the June/July 1999 DATABASE, but I wrote the review in November 1998 as part of an article on 1999 Codie nominees. I gave the disc a 94 rating (well into the Excellent range). RedShift was established as “the premier astronomical CD-ROM in the marketplace” and this was “an absolutely first-rate disc.” For its time, the video was first-rate, the sound was “astonishing” (CD-quality stereo, almost unheard of for a 1998 CD-ROM) and the text was “readable, if not ideal.”

I thought it was “an excellent purchase for almost any public library, and probably worth your own time and money if you have any interest in astronomy.” I probably spent eight or ten hours exploring the original disc; I could imagine spending much more than that if I was more of a stargazer. (By the way, it won a Codie.)

Where are we now?

Remarkably, RedShift 3 is still available—albeit from a different distributor (Viva Media) and probably without the printed manual (since the weight at Amazon is 2.4oz). It sells for $16.99. There also seems to be a Microsoft version for $6. It’s a little confusing…

Maris does have a website—noting that Piranha went bankrupt and, in the process, the domain for RedShift users to obtain updates was acquired by a pornography site. Ah, but there’s also RedShift 7 at www.redshift-live.com, with several versions available as downloads or on DVD-ROM, at prices from $20 to $80. (The site’s German but you can select an English version.) The newer versions appear to have much more and newer content, as you’d expect over ten years and with the move to DVD-ROM.

Can you just use the free web to get the same views? Maybe. I see several virtual planetaria on the web, some of them fairly impressive. I see alternative software for purchase. Certainly, far more dramatic images of objects in space are available now from NASA and other agencies.

What have we lost?

Nothing—partly because the original is still available (at a much lower price) and still works, partly because there are newer (and presumably better) versions, partly because both planetaria and, particularly space imagery take such good advantage of web resources.

RedShift has sold more than a million copies over the years. I suspect there’s still room for it alongside newer resources. If your library still has a copy? There’s more life in that 12-year-old CD than I would have expected.

Astronomy: An Immersive Journey through the Universe

And now for something entirely different—or not so much. This one’s a “Compton’s Learning” 2-CD jewelbox (no printed manual) from The Learning Company, copyright 1999—just a little newer than RedShift 3. Ah, but on the back cover is a Maris logo…and on the front is the RedShift logo.

In other words, it’s a rebranded version of RedShift sold under another name through another distributor—with the Codie Award seal, for that matter. There is a PDF manual, 211 pages—and that manual is explicitly labeled RedShift 3. So it’s fair to assume this is pretty much the same program as on the other disc, albeit with a second CD (with about 166MB of data).

I can’t tell you for sure because the setup was blocked by McAfee for attempting to install malware. Real malware? I don’t know and I didn’t choose to find out. The odd thing is that the blocked item was from a function I had explicitly unchecked. My guess is most cautious Windows 7 users will not bypass a security warning suggesting that a ten-year-old CD-ROM is about to do something that could damage their system. I know I won’t.

Oddly enough, I never reviewed this disc (as far as I can tell). Chances are, it would get a very similar review to RedShift 3, since it appears to be the same program.

This one’s apparently still available—maybe. Amazon lists three sellers (not including Amazon itself) at $21 and up. For all I know, the supposed malware may not be problematic at all…but since the real RedShift 3 is cheaper, I wouldn’t bother finding out.

Great Artists

This one’s old. I reviewed it, very briefly, in the July 1996 CD-ROM Professional as one of five Cambrix-distributed discs. It was published in 1994. I called it a “keeper.” It was produced by ATTICA Cybernetics and Marshall Cavendish Ltd., in association with the National Gallery, London. Here’s the writeup in its entirety:

Another Cambrix keeper, Great Artists, looks at 40 major European artists with one key painting for each artist. The interface is clear, obvious, and workable. There are several different ways of approaching a surprisingly large volume of materials: half a million words of text, several hundred illustrations, 40 lectures, and a few video clips. All text is crystal-clear serif on a cream-colored background.

The disc includes clear search facilities as well as a history of screens visited. There are supposedly hypertext definitions for words in red, although that feature didn’t run on my system. “Multimedia” is limited but effective, and workshop tools let you explore the 40 paintings in considerable detail, even zooming in to see brushstrokes. The presentation would not work as well in book, videotape or other form; it’s a natural for CD-ROM. If not great art in and of itself, Great Artists is nonetheless a clear winner, even with some bugs, and a keeper.

The years have not been as kind to Great Artists as I was. The CD-ROM does install—sort of (copying a handful of files to its own directory), but the results of that installation aren’t obvious (which may have to do with ambiguous install options). When you run it, it wants to install Video for Windows—a very old version that “won’t run on Windows NT” (which is to say, won’t run on any Windows from XP onward!). After that error message (the attempt is repeated each time you start the program), the program does start anyway.

In a fixed, unmovable, small window (maybe 640x480, maybe smaller) in the top left hand corner of your primary screen. No Windows methodology at all; the only way to exit is an Exit symbol on the Home screen.

Within that window—which, on modern systems, seems pretty tiny—most things work. Sort of. The videos won’t play (no surprise there); I didn’t encounter any audio lectures (they’re definitely on the CD-ROM, but I apparently didn’t trigger them or the triggers don’t work); most of the workshop tools either work badly or not at all (some interesting ones require you to run in 256-color mode—remember 256-color mode?); the zoom feature appears to be a fixed zoom for one prechosen portion of each painting. The only functional multimedia, other than pictures, is the period-appropriate music that plays on each screen chosen from a timeline…until you choose one of the options, at which point it stops. All in all, while there’s doubtless still a lot of material here, I can’t imagine anybody spending much time in that little fixed window with its desire for substandard graphics. Time has passed this one by—although the ideas are still excellent.

Availability and equivalences

A search shows what appears to be the same CD-ROM or a newer version from Attica Cybernetics. At $100, unless it’s vastly improved it’s wildly overpriced. (As far as I can tell, it’s the same thing—I can see no verifiable references to anything newer than 1995.)

Is there a website with comparable value? A superficial set of searches doesn’t yield anything directly comparable, and some of the exploratory tools would require more than a simple web browser—for example, the tool that lets you vary the saturation of each RGB color to see its effects on a painting.

On the other hand…the National Gallery’s own website (nationalgallery.org.uk) includes excellent methods to browse, locate and explore more than 2,000 paintings, almost certainly including the 40 on the CD-ROM. You can find them by artist or through a timeline and, for each one, get a description, key facts, an artist biography and a high-quality image with one level of zoom (but you can move the zoomed area). While not having those workshop tools or videos or lectures, this free site offers vastly more information on 50 times as many artworks. We may have lost something since 1994, but what we’ve gained is immensely more valuable and usable.

For its day, this CD-ROM was groundbreaking. I suspect the last appearance of the CD-ROM was in a five-CD-ROM bundle of art-related discs, the kind of bundle that appeared frequently in the late 1990s/early 2000s as companies tried to make something of the remains of the many bankrupt and disappeared publishers. It was an interesting way to explore, but probably too deliberate and certainly too limited for today’s market. What’s left here isn’t worth keeping.

ArtRageous!

This art-related CD-ROM is of the same vintage (1995) and is also about exploring art, but where Great Artists is somber and lecture-oriented, ArtRageous! is deliberately a little over the top. I loved it when I reviewed it in the June/July 1997 Database, giving it a 97, one of the highest ratings I’ve ever given. ArtRageous! puts you in a plaza leading to several vaguely bizarre neighborhoods, with an easel displaying commentary from an odd character. Neighborhoods include Color, Light, Perspective, Composition, Life of Art and Database—and the first five offer ways to explore aspects of that topic. For its day, this CD-ROM was a little more demanding: While Great Artists would run on a 16MHz 386, this required a Pentium and at least a quad-speed CD-ROM drive. “I found myself learning about art even as I was playing, and spent much more time on this disc than intended.”

Ah, but that was then. How does it stand up 14 years later?

That’s easy: It doesn’t. Although the install screen (a movable Windows screen) comes up—and doesn’t seem to require an actual install—any attempt to run the program yields a general protection fault. Just not going to happen. It’s designed for Windows 95 and Windows 3.1—it’s not going to run on Windows 7 without special virtualization or compatibility trickery.

You can still buy ArtRageous from some obscure vendors (I see it for $4.99, factory-sealed jewel case) but it’s the same old product, I suspect. (Hmm. This description says it only needs a 25MHz 486SX and double-speed CD-ROM…or a 25MHz 68030-based Mac with System 7.1 or later. I’m guessing it won’t work much better on a contemporary Mac.)

Maybe you can find ways to make it run—I see an odd gaming review from 2007—but I’m not ready to try to find loopholes. One vendor of a 15-year-old CD-ROM says it runs on Windows XP. That might be true, but I’d be a little suspicious…

Online equivalent? It seems unlikely. I found this playful approach to understanding art useful, but I suspect it’s no great loss.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 10, Number 8, Whole Issue 131, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford.

This issue sponsored by the Library Society of the World (LSW).

Comments should be sent to waltcrawford@gmail.com. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2010 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

All original material in this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/ licenses/by-nc/1.0 or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.

URL: citesandinsights.info/civ10i8.pdf