Knowledge Adventure. (educational software with multimedia effects) (Evaluation)
by Peter Scisco
For a few years now, the computer industry has tried to define the term $Imultimedia$N in terms of computer equipment. This definition revolves around something called the MPC--a 386SX-based personal computer with a CD-ROM drive, a high-quality graphics monitor, and a sound card compatible with Microsoft's multimedia extensions to Windows.
The problem with this definition is that not all computer user's have MPC-compatible machines nor are they prepared to upgrade their present computers to meet these rigorous demands. For these users, however, the world of multimedia computing is not completely out of reach. A company called Knowledge Adventure, with its same-named Knowledge Adventure software, brings a multimedia-flavored environment to regular-edition personal computers.
Knowledge Adventure isn't a game: You don't score points, and you don't race against a clock. Neither is it just an encyclopedia. Instead, you take a leisurely journey through a storehouse of facts, images, and sounds. For adults and children already imbued with healthy curiosity, the journey becomes as invigorating as any adventure game. For students who need prompting and encouragement to pursue their studies, the fact that this is a computer-based product with high-quality images and sound effects may be enticing enough to get them hooked on learning--at least for a while.
Knowledge Adventure is designed as a modular application. To the basic program, the company is planning to add special voyages into the worlds of music, literature, science, sports, law, math, religion, and philosophy. If these additional modules perform as well as the basic program, you can look forward to many hours of adventure and discovery. The graphics are well designed and produced, and the sound effects, including voices, are quite clear when played through a Sound Blaster card.
It's hard to speak of a program like this as being well organized. While there are several threads and options that allow you to direct your explorations or retrace your steps, the point is to promote free travel and discovery.
Such freedom can at times be disconcerting, even jarring, in its juxtapositions. For example, while reading a short biographical note about Leonardo da Vinci, you might click on the small graphic of the Mona Lisa and find yourself looking at a larger representation of this famous portrait. Clicking on the Mona Lisa might take you to a screen displaying the Venus de Milo. The connection between these two artworks is unclear, and the matter is further complicated when you click on the statute of Venus and are transported into space for a spectacular view of the planet Venus.
The program's manual suggests making a game of discovering the connections between such apparently disparate pieces of information. As any student of liberal arts will tell you, it's in these links, and not in the facts themselves, that real knowledge resides.
To assist you, Knowledge Adventure employes a simple interface of icons and directional indicators. The buttons lined up at the top of the screen represent the categories of Art, Science, Literature, Architecture, Music, and Nature. Selecting any of these buttons with the mouse (the program also accepts keyboard input) moves you to a screen that falls within the selected category. Selecting the Literature button, for example, guides your search to a biographical note about a famous author or perhaps a description of a work with particular literary significance.
The category buttons can be used as more than linear passageways through time, however. By highlighting a button, you can limit your voyage to a specific category. For instance, if you were to highlight the Nature button, all of the information that you'd receive during your search would be confined to that category.
The Help option is a good example of the program's interactive screens. The Help area appears as a library reference room. There's a large "card catalog" with lettered drawers from which you can get an alphabetical listing of subjects contained in the program.
For example, selecting the L drawer brings up a list beginning with LAB and ending with LYNDON. These main subjects--in uppercase--can't be selected, but the underlying subjects are linked to information screens. Under LAB, you'll find G. Washington Carver and Penicillin. Clicking on Carver brings up a biographical entry about the inspirational scientist who invented hundreds of ways for using the peanut and the sweet potato--and in so doing, helped to lift many Southern Black farmers out of poverty.
The Help screen also has a graphic of a checkerboard. Select it, and you move to the program's only game element--a quiz game. In it, you must answer a question by navigating through the database. Your score is determined by how many mouse clicks it takes you to answer the question.
Knowledge Adventure is further bolstered by a globe and a time line that are always present. Rotate the globe using directional arrows beneath the box to have access to almost any point on the earth. When you reach the spot you want, click on it to recieve information linked to that geographical point. Besides the directional arrows, you can use a sliding scale to zoom in on and out from the globe.
The time line at the bottom of the screen encompasses the eons from 15 billion B.C. (the start of the universe, according to proponents of the big bang theory) to Beyond 2000, which offers a glimpse of the world tomorrow. The last two entries are for 1989 (the collapse of the Berlin Wall, presaging the disintegration of Communist influence in Eastern Europe) and 1990 (the launch of and the problems with the Hubble Space Telescope).
The strength of Knowledge Adventure--its promotion of discovery at the expense of overly rigid or organization--is, paradoxically, also its greatest weakness. The program can be used effectively as a launching pad for further exploration, but it's neither complete nor comprehensive enough to be used as a research tool in its own right. Descriptions are brief and reasonably accurate; however, they aren't annotated in any way and shouldn't be taken at face value. Adults who buy this program for their children should assist them in finding suitable reference materials once the spark of discovery has been lit.
Knowledge Adventure, unlike MPC-based reference tools such as Microsoft Book-shelf for Windows, doesn't offer research and writing tools other than its printing utility. Also, there are no animated sequences such as those you might find on a CD-ROM-based multimedia product.
However, bringing this kind of free-form database, complete with sound and images, to the PC in a disk-based product is an achievement that should be recognized as a challenge to the notion that only MPC-equipped computers can make use of multimedia elements. Long after the standard for multimedia computing has been defined, innovative companies like Knowledge Adventure will use the theory of multimedia--linking images, sound, and text in an interactive context--to take us back to where we've been and forward to where we've not yet gone.