The Animals! (Software Toolworks multimedia software) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by David Sears
See strange and exotic creatures from around the world when you visit the San Diego Zoo--in your own living room.
See lions and tigers and bears and more when you visit the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Don't think you can afford the plane fare and hotel accommodations (not to mention the time off from work)? If you own a CD-ROM drive, you can send your favorite youngsters all the way to San Diego without their having to leave your home--for a very reasonable fee. The Animals!, a true multimedia tour de force featuring the San Diego Zoo, makes this trip possible, and it's more than worth its price of admission.
The Software Toolworks took advantage of the vast world available on a CD-ROM drive and made The Animals! almost as much fun and as easy to explore as the real zoo. After loading the program but before you even reach the Main menu, you have the option to browse through exhibits by looking up animals by name. You simply click on the appropriate icon on the title screen, and a windowful of animal names, all alphabetically listed, appears. Click on the name of any animal, and you'll see the animal beautifully and very sharply digitized before you. The Animals! creators did a fantastic job both collecting and transferring the visual data to disk. From the title screen, you can also click on the Sky Tram icon for an overview of the zoo's exhibits, or you can click on the Main Menu icon, which opens the Main Menu map. On to the zoo!
The Main Menu is essentially a large map divided into sections. These sections include Tropical Rain Forest, Montane, Tundra, Desert, Island, Grassland, Savanna, Temperate Forest, Taiga--all the earth's biomes. The Animals!, like the San Diego Zoo, displays its animals in surroundings that approximate their natural habitats. The map also includes the Center for the Reproduction of Endangered Species (CRES), a Kids Section, a Storybook Theater, a Nursery, and a Tours booth, among other things. At the CRES, you can learn what the zoo does to repopulate dwindling species. At the Storybook Theater, you can watch films about the zoo and its inhabitants. The Kids section even contains a few quizzes. There are hours of fun and learning to be spent here.
Navigating The Animals! does not consume much of your time--it's faster than walking to exhibits at the actual San Diego Zoo. At the top of the Main Menu, you'll find the Navigation Palette, which holds a band of command buttons that allow you to travel quickly to any point in the zoo. These are simple enough to operate, and you can move forward or backward one exhibit, jump to any exhibit within the biome that you selected, and summon extensive online help related to your situation. A Copy to Disk option allows you to fill the Windows Clipboard with text or graphics data from The Animals!. If you ever seem lost, it's very easy to retrace your footsteps: You simply click on the Go Back icon (which displays a list of all the places you've visited so far).
You may also locate animals by searching for keywords such as bird or tiger. Clicking on the Media Library icon presents you with a list of all the pictures, video clips, and sounds found on the disc.
When you discover an interesting animal, you may read about it in the text window or view the snapshots and videos of it in the picture window. Just click on the necessary icons, and in a second or two, the show begins. Other icons include the Information Profile, which offers a summary of the exhibit; a Kid's Planet, which features a simplified overview for younger zoogoers; an Endangered Species section; and more.
Before any of this matters, though, you have to choose a section of the zoo to visit. To do this, examine the Main Menu map, choose a biome, and click on it. The Animals! transports you to the first exhibit in that particular section. Now, the fun really begins. The San Diego Zoo is home to more than just lions and elephants, and finding these more unusual creatures can prove enlightening as well as entertaining as you use the Text and Audio/Visual options to explore links between one animal and another.
For instance, while I was visiting the grasslands, I came across the greater prairie chicken exhibit. This less popular animal had only a single color snapshot and a single sound on disc. The text window did little to liven up the display with its brief summary, but it did mention that the prairie chicken and the blue peacock are related. So, I explored the text-media link by first clicking on the A/V Links icon; this led me to the California quail. I went to the top of the screen to click on the Next Exhibit icon, passed by a number of exhibits that weren't particularly interesting to me--all still in the grasslands, of course--and stopped to stare at a peculiar bunch of animals, the meerkats.
Cute and ferretlike, they warranted a few minutes study and observation time. I clicked on the Facts and Figures icon to quickly read up on the little creatures. It turns out that they're related to the slender-tailed mongoose; are native to Angola, Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa; and love to eat eggs.
The Animals! let me down a bit at this point, however. The meerkats' "chitchat," which is mentioned in the text, wasn't used as a sampled sound in the A/V Links menu. The meerkats did get to star in their own short video, however, and their exhibit sported four additional snapshots besides.
The playback panel for the video clips appears after you click on a video clip's icon. It offers Play, Pause, Frame Advance, Frame Rewind, Rewind, and Fast Forward buttons--and all work exactly as you'd expect, though the Frame Forward and Frame Rewind do cause the otherwise smooth playback to jar and display some disorganized pixels for a moment.
Also, the playback can be viewed in any of three modes: 160 x 120, 320 x 240, or full screen. The larger the display area, the blockier the images become. If you want the finest resolution, you should select the smallest display area option on the Customization menu. But if you want to view a reasonably sized movie, you should go with the 320 x 240 display mode. The fantastic, high-quality sounds remain synchronized with the images, no matter what image size you've selected.
The meerkat exhibit also contains a Kid's World icon labeled Crazy Ways. I clicked on this and read some of the more amusing and peculiar details of meerkat life. The text seems considerate of young readers and contains as much information as kids probably could retain from a visit to the zoo. This is, alas, also the major weakness of The Animals!: It provides as much information as a trip to the zoo and can show you pictures of the animals there, but it often doesn't include an overwhelming amount of factual detail.
Certainly the extensive online bibliography will aid anyone who is interested in researching meerkats or other of the less-famous zoo animals, but much more information could've gone onto this CD-ROM program than the amount that goes onto the exhibit placards at the actual zoo in San Diego.
Don't think The Animals! is run-of-the-mill, would-be multimedia PC (MPC) fare, through: The Software Toolworks did an outstanding job of packaging more than 82 short films on a single CD-ROM, along with 1300 256-color pictures, 2500 pages of text, and 2-1/2 hours of sound data. The DOS (non-CD) version offers fewer options but retains all the educational value. But the real deal is the CD-ROM version. Its incredible images, animation, and sound will motivate you to learn about all the animals in the San Diego Zoo.
If The Animals! is any indication of the next wave of MPC products, an upgrade to CD-ROM would make a most worthy investment.