An Elegy for the Multimedia CD-ROM Stars

5/9/08Follow @wroush

On balance, I’m a fan of all things Web. But every successful new medium disrupts or transforms the media that came before—just as the movies killed vaudeville, TV killed episodic radio, MP3s are upending the music industry, and Netflix is killing the neighborhood video store—and it’s important to recognize the value that can be lost in this process. Today I’d like to deliver a short elegy for the educational multimedia CD-ROM, which has been replaced, but not surpassed, by the Internet.

For a brief time in the late 1990s—roughly between the release of Microsoft Windows 95 in 1995 and the widespread availability of DSL-speed Internet access starting around 2000—the typical home computer had a powerful graphical interface capable of displaying at least 256 colors, but was effectively a digital island. At 28 or 56 kbps modem speeds, access to what little photographic, audio, or video content there was on the Web was painfully slow. The only practical vehicle for getting multimedia content onto PC screens and making it interactive in real time was the optical CD-ROM drive, a standard feature of most home computers by 1996 or so.

With nowhere else to turn, artists, writers, and producers excited about the possibilities of interactivity churned out a huge volume of CD-ROM-based games, educational software, reference materials, and “edutainment” titles. It’s this last category that particularly fascinates me. Using, for the most part, a single authoring and playback platform called Macromedia Director (now Adobe Director), publishers created learning-oriented CD-ROMs on everything from volcanoes to Impressionism to World War II history. The theory behind most of these titles was that adding sounds, visuals, animation, and narration to the dry facts of history, art, science, or engineering—and giving users tools for navigating their own way through this material—would lend such subjects an immediacy and vibrancy that older media, such as textbooks, encyclopedias, and TV documentaries, simply couldn’t match.

James Cameron’s Titanic ExplorerAnd for the most part, the theory was correct. I’ve got a large collection of old CD-ROM titles that I still pop into my Windows laptop from time to time—the way an audiophile who won’t part with his vinyl albums might break out the old LP player. As I re-watch these titles, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that multimedia authoring, as an art form, reached a kind of pinnacle around 1996-97. That was the era, for example, of Dorling Kindersley’s live-action, interactive version of David Macaulay’s classic The Way Things Work, and of James Cameron’s Titanic Explorer from Fox Interactive, a stunning 3-disc collection of blueprints, news footage, and first-person accounts of the sinking of the Titanic, structured around sequences from Cameron’s blockbuster movie.

But the absolute masters of the CD-ROM genre were a team of producers brought together by Corbis, the digital image archive founded by Bill Gates in 1989. As I explained in a previous column, the original idea behind Corbis was to license the digital versions of the world’s best art and photography for display in consumers’ homes. That part of the vision didn’t come to fruition until recently; in the 1990s, meanwhile, the company went through a number of incarnations as it searched for a realistic business model, eventually emerging as an online stock-photo archive focused purely on image licensing (there’s a pretty good history here).

The Codescope, from Corbis’s Leonardo da Vinci CD-ROMFrom 1994 to 1996, one of Corbis’s strategies was to publish cutting-edge multimedia titles that showcased its archive’s rich content. And the series of six CD-ROMs it created—especially A Passion for Art (1995), an interactive tour of the Barnes Foundation museum outside Philadelphia, and Leonardo da Vinci (1996), which was built around a digitized version of Leonardo’s Codex Leicester, purchased by Bill Gates in 1994 for $30.8 million—astonished most critics, including yours truly in a review published in Technology Review 10 years ago this spring. The da Vinci disc contains the most accessible and bewitching introduction to Leonardo’s thinking and methods I’ve ever seen. And the Barnes CD-ROM is such an uncannily faithful recreation of the actual museum—with its unparalleled collection of Impressionist masterpieces by Cezanne, Renoir, Matisse, Van Gogh, and others—that when I had the opportunity to visit the foundation several years ago, I felt as if I already knew my way around the entire building, and was able to walk straight to the galleries that held my favorite paintings.

Unfortunately, the Corbis titles never sold well enough (or, if my guess is correct, were never marketed aggressively enough) to cover the vast expense of producing them—for A Passion for Art alone, Corbis had to process and piece together thousands of photographs and hire art critics to write essays about 327 separate paintings. But it was a grand experiment, for these productions, which are long since out of print, reached a level of elegance, sophistication, and intelligence that has never been topped.

A Passsion for Art - CD-ROM Cover(The curious can still find used versions of some of the titles on eBay. And in a blessing for art lovers, the Barnes Foundation commissioned a remastered version of A Passion for Art—complete with stereo sound, millions of colors, and 1024×768-pixel image resolution—in 2003. It’s available for $35 from the foundation’s online gift store).

But slack demand and poor marketing are only part of the explanation for the brevity of the CD-ROM’s Golden Age. With the spread of broadband Internet connectivity around the turn of the millennium, Web surfers gained access to growing amounts of multimedia content online—I hardly have to describe the deluge of digital videos, movies, TV shows, podcasts, and other material now available from the likes of iTunes and YouTube. And as soon as the old input/output limitations on home computers began to lift, the CD-ROM—which can hold only about 650 megabytes of information—began its slide into antiquity.

There’s a funny thing about resource limitations: they tend to inspire artists to amazing heights of creativity. Now that bandwidth is, for all practical purposes, free and unlimited, it seems that no one in the community of Web designers and developers bothers to create tightly scripted interactive multimedia productions of the caliber that Corbis and other houses achieved in the 1990s using technology much less advanced than what’s available today.

Many of the conventions of the old CD-ROM format could be profitably reinvented and adapted for the new era of broadband, wirelessness, 3-D graphics, and high-definition displays. But aside from a few projects using platforms like Adobe’s Flash and Microsoft’s Silverlight, I haven’t seen anything that approaches the standards set by Corbis more than a decade ago. Schumpeter watched capitalistic societies engage in a continuous, technology-driven overhaul and called it “creative destruction.” But sometimes it’s just plain destruction.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.93south.net David

    Wade – great article. I remember just around the height of the mid-90s there was an almost fever pitch by marketing execs to produce a CD-ROM…must produce a CD-ROM…must produce a CD-ROM. Glad to see that era go!

  • http://ampersanddot.com/blog Zach

    Now this will date me a bit, but the biggest memory I have of this time (aside from what CD roms meant for computer gaming!) is doing my college search through a stack of CD-Roms.

    Looking at engineering schools in the mid/late ’90s meant that each school attempted to prove technical prowess by adopting a digital version of its guidebook.

    Just as you described, college websites were vastly limited by dialup capabilities and thus far too simple and dull to show off a campus- but CD-Rom enabled a full on promotion.

    Incidentally the higher-ed market holds stake as a prime example of the technical adaption over the last decade. While in college I helped build sections of the school website; once graduated I had a project building a “virtual tour” for prospective students of another school; and then eventually built social networks around an admission office.

    But back to the CD-ROM bit. I’m glad to see them go, physical media is so 2003…

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