Tuesday, March 27, 2007

In a world of ultraviolent 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.

One of the premiere information resources for more than two centuries continues to try and maintain its relevance in a digital world through a wealth of knowledge stuffed into a single DVD.

• Encyclopaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite 2007 can’t compete with the vast, constantly updated content now available via the World Wide Web, but it will give students quite a collection of well-written, authoritative articles smattered with multimedia at a ridiculously cheap price.

Its latest digital encyclopedia will chew up more than three gigabytes of space on a hard drive as it completely loads in under 15 minutes on multi-gigahertz computers.

And just by the numbers, it is a pretty impressive package. More than 100,000 articles written by scholars in the field and occasional Nobel laureates, more than 20,000 images, 1,000 videos, Internet access to over 166,000 sources, more than 2,500 interactive maps and timelines, and a pop-up dictionary and thesaurus.

After users choose either an adult, student (ages 10 to 14 ) or elementary level (ages 6 to 10) version of the encyclopedia, a very boring but efficient tab-based interface that wants to act like a Web browser is displayed to access and search content.

For the purposes of this column, educational fun, I will focus on the Britannica Elementary Library of data as it tries to coax the learning bug into tykes much like a grandmother offers cough syrup.

Youngsters through the opening page can quickly click to Homework Help Desk, Video Clips, Timelines, Explore and Dictionary. They also will find an A-Z Browse function on the left side of the page that beckons with ready-to-click topics such as acid rain, Aesop and Aztec, not likely.

Additionally, a task bar located in all three versions keeps track of everywhere knowledge-seekers roam.

The Homework Help Desk is where children might stay awake and it promises a Games and Activities area honed toward Language Arts, Mathematics, Science and Social Studies.

Within each discipline, students will find printable PDF study guides to take away from the computer and a robust set of online challenges nestled deep in the actual Britannica Web site, accessed only by the DVD owner.

Despite the presentations that might only look hip to a sheltered preschooler, the games deliver a colorful, often character-driven, set of problem-solving chances and knowledge immersions.

For example, in Science the player uses a forklift to move crates with words on them to corresponding similar words about the human anatomy.

Or, in Language Arts, readers get a colorful interactive history book about P.T. Barnum to peruse and take a quiz after.

Math is most impressive with more than 50 challenges spread out for kindergarten to fifth-grade audiences.

For the right inquisitive learner, this part of Britannica could be a gold mine.

The Student versions also includes a solid Homework Help Desk with lots of interactive features that range from a multimedia-packed discussion of tessellations to an analysis of “Oliver Twist” to an introduction to ecosystems of the world.

However, I was not thrilled with its content updates. An initial search will reveal Pluto is still a planet, but an icon in the corner of the entry must be clicked on to view an updated article, retrieved online.

Overall, the multitasking tweens addicted to visual extravaganzas will find the stodgy presentations a bit hard to swallow, but parents who wish to expose their students to the basics that they grew up on will consider the package a great value.

Note: Students can also just buy, instead of the DVD, a one-year subscription to Britannica Online for $69.95 per year with not as many bells and whistles but just the “always” updated facts.

Also, a new version of this software dubbed Britannica Deluxe 2008 will debut later this year with a project management interface, biographies area and a free, six-month subscription to Encyclopedia Britannica Online.

Encyclopaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite 2007 ($39.95) from Avanquest USA for DVD-enabled Macintosh (OS 10.4) and PC (2000 or XP, currently not compatible with Vista) systems.

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, DC 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

A trio of treats

Here are three multimedia items for the entire family:

• “Engineering an Empire” from New Video (for DVD-enabled computers and home-entertainment centers, $49.99).

This five-disk set contains the History Channel’s 12-program follow-up to the acclaimed “Rome: Engineering an Empire” and “Egypt: Engineering an Empire” documentaries.

That translates into a glorious adventure of more than nine hours for students of history as they learn about the individuals who led great civilizations, the mysteries behind such architectural feats as the Great Wall of China and the Kremlin and the origins of some amazing inventions used in war and to forward powerful empires.

From Napoleon’s France to Alexander’s Greece to DaVinci’s Italy, brilliance of the human mind and spirit is explored with help from Peter (“RoboCop”) Weller who offers the “common man” perspective to wield in a wide range of enthusiastic historians and experts.

In a missed opportunity, viewers only get a 20-minute, behind-the-scenes feature for extras but no PC content. It seems at the least an interactive timeline should have been created to supplement the fantastic programming.

• “Happy Feet” from Warner Home Video (for DVD-enabled computers and home-entertainment centers, $29.99).

The 2007 Academy Award winner for Best Animated Feature arrives on DVD with a slim set of extras that are no match for the power and beauty of this family friendly film.

After enjoying the 108-minute effort about an emperor penguin named Mumble and his fantastic footwork, viewers get only six-minutes worth of dancer extraordinaire Savion Glover (the motion-captured feet of Mumble) discussing his favorite topic while displaying some wicked tap moves. Man, this feature needed to be much longer.

A couple of music videos are also thrown in and the nostalgic “I Love to Singa,” Merrie Melodies’ cartoon short about an young owl with an ear for jazz.

Popping the disk into the PC is a disappointment with only a link to “Happy Feet” movie Web site (www2.warnerbros.com/happyfeet). The site is worth a look for its beautiful design and interactives but, still, no exclusive PC content for the DVD.

I am guessing a much more extras-enhanced DVD set is planned for the future, so this release is best relegated to the rental list.

• “Charlotte’s Web” from Paramount Home Entertainment (for DVD-enabled computers and home-entertainment centers, $29.99).

Last year’s live-action film dedicated to E.B. White’s classic children’s book arrives on a single DVD loaded with extras that explore the origins and filmmaking behind an amazing friendship between a little girl, a pig and a barnyard spider.

Production featurettes on the disk include an optional commentary track with director Gary Winick, a behind-the-scenes look at the animal trainers, the star-studded voice-over cast and the author, but the real fun starts when the DVD is placed in a PC.

First, a Storybook Creator allows children to develop and publish online a PDF comic book based on the movie.

After a fairly lengthy and complicated installation of multiple software components (parents’ help required), artists can use a drag-and-drop interface to add photo images from the film and dialogue bubbles, manipulate fonts, colors and layouts and even add sound clips and animation. They can also incorporate their own photos and backdrops into the flexible multipanel layouts.

This is a demo version of software, so children will be able to look at their creation on screen and on the Web (parents will need to get involved again to register) but not print it out. They will also be prompted, often, to buy the full version ($29.99) of this fairly robust art tool.

Next, a Charlotte’s Web video-game demo from Sega offers four challenges from the full version of the title.

Players, within multiple levels that feature graphics from the movie, can first collect letters with Charlotte’s Web to spell words. In another game, they can push an egg around to trigger lights and discover Templeton the rat’s secret passageways. They can also move bails of hay around a gridded puzzle board and take a trivia quiz.

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