- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2001

In a world of violent video games, where dexterity of the thumb and index finger is infinitely more important than the flexing of the cerebrum, there must be a place for children and their parents to interact and actually learn something from that overpriced multimedia computer/gaming system. Take a deep breath and enter the ROMper Room, where learning is a four-letter word cool.

The Musee d'Orsay in Paris houses an extraordinary collection of art from the second half of the 19th century to the dawn of the 20th century and also offers a place to gather for live entertainment, quiet contemplation and learning.

Lovers of art and architecture can visit the famed museum without taking a train or plane, through the Musee d'Orsay Virtual Visit.

Destined for demolition in 1973, the d'Orsay railroad station and adjoining hotel were saved, but it was not until 1981 that French President Francois Mitterrand lent his support to renovating the structures to provide a bridge between the collections of the Louvre and the museum of modern art at the Pompidou Center.

The CD-ROM aptly provides a detailed visual and aural history of the buildings that now house 15 collections covering paintings and pastels, sculpture, decorative arts, photography and architecture.

Through the virtual visit, users will see and hear about the buildings' architecture and see 300 pieces of art by greats such as Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh while "strolling" through a series of exhibition rooms and terraces.

As one moves through the exhibition rooms, pieces may be clicked upon, revealing a page that contains and audio commentary and details about the artwork, such as its location in the museum, historical time frame, title, artist's name.

Users can zoom in to see details, getting nose to nose with some of the world's finest sculptures and portraits, or even rotate the pieces to view all angles. A handy scale feature allows the artwork to be measured and compared to the size of a human figure.

Other information revealed includes a presentation on the background of the piece, its creation, secrets about the work, its composition and information on its historical and cultural context.

The artwork also can be visited by period when users click into the "Collections" screen. From there, one can gain access to any specific work by first choosing from the artistic movement to which it belongs, which also highlights a list of other representative works of that movement. To enhance the experience, popular music for that time can be played in the background.

Finally, users can collect favorite pieces into an album by sliding each onto the navigation palette. Voice commentaries and narratives will appear in written form, and users can add their own comments.

Musee d'Orsay Virtual Visit (Montparnasse Multimedia, $49.95) Cross compatible for PC and Macintosh systems.

Phonics quest

With the wave of a sorcerer's wand, Mickey Mouse helps children learn reading and writing and hone comprehension skills in Disney's Phonics Quest.

Children 5 to 8 years old play activities geared to teach letter and sound recognition, vocabulary, spelling, word building, long and short vowels and consonant blends.

In the story, Mickey is the wizard's apprentice, and he has been left in charge of cleaning the castle. As the wizard leaves, he warns the mouse not to touch his book. When Mickey takes a peek, six of the wizard's most important items from crystal ball to a pendant disappear in a gust of wind.

The items land in the forest, the village and the mountain, and the quest begins as Mickey and the player head out in search of the six challenges that will return the lost items.

For example, while in the forest, players can help Minnie arrange her songs by sorting words and images according to voiced instructions. Once organized, Minnie treats the player to a tune, and a buzzard flying high overhead drops one of the missing items.

One of my favorites is Mickey's Dragon Daycare, found in the mountain region. The goal is to match the dragon mother with the pictures on a batch of T-shirt-wearing babies by listening to spoken sounds.

If one mom dragon says "I am looking for a baby with a 'buh' sound," the child must pick up and deliver the baby whose T-shirt picture starts with the sound (buh-bird). This game even works with toddlers and can become a fun activity involving the parent.

Children also can answer questions on many of the challenges by using voice-recognition technology with the help of a microphone (not included).

Disney's Phonics Quest (Disney Interactive, $19.99). Cross compatible for PC and Macintosh systems.

Double delight

Try these multimedia entertainment items for some family fun:

• Nancy Drew: Treasure in the Royal Tower, from Her Interactive (For Windows 95, 98, 2000, ME and XP systems, $19.95.) The legendary teen sleuth and friend to millions of girls for 71 years comes to the computer screen through a 3-D interactive mystery geared toward children 10 years old and older.

This first-person adventure allows the player to become Nancy as she investigates an elaborate plot devised 200 years ago by Marie Antoinette to hide a royal treasure. Snowbound during her ski vacation in a spooky castle, Nancy must interview characters, solve puzzles, decipher riddles, search rooms and avoid danger to uncover the historical riches.

Flexible skill-level settings combined with slick graphics, such as 360-degree environments, and handy help screens make for many an evening of intrigue.

• When Dinosaurs Roamed America," from Artisan Home Entertainment (For DVD-enabled computers and home entertainment centers, $19.98) John Goodman narrates an immersive look into Earth's mightiest creatures. It originally was shown on the Discovery Channel earlier this year.

The virtual exhibit explores the evolution of dinosaurs in North America from their humble beginnings 220 million years ago in what was to become New York City to the South Dakota of 65 million years ago. State-of-the-art computer animation techniques bring the creatures to life and death as viewers learn about the various species through lush scenes of their daily existence, cut-ins of their anatomy and snippets of paleontologists offering the latest findings.

Bonus features rounding out the main program include a dinosaur quiz, dinosaur facts, interviews with animators and experts, and behind-the-scenes looks at the creation of the lifelike beasts.

Parents should be aware that younger children may be a bit frightened by the realistic portrayals of the creatures, especially in the survival-of-the-fittest scenes, but the overall presentation and eye-opening revelations make for a great educational experience.

ROMper Room is a column devoted to finding the best of multimedia edutainment. Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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