A new breath of life for the CD-ROM

The much-maligned and already dismissed CD-ROM is ready for a renaissance. Yolanda Zappaterra looks at a new breed of CDs which are backed by websites.

The recently screened television series Killer Net by Lynda La Plante, about a CD-ROM game which has an eerie bearing on real life, caused much derision among the UK on-line community (visit http://www.ntk.net/killer/ to read comments). Many delighted in dissecting the series’ inconsistencies and errors. But one area the beleaguered story did get right was the increasing popularity in hybridisation between CD-ROMs and the Internet.

As recently as last year, everyone thought the CD-ROM’s value as an interactive medium had been misjudged. The Internet’s obvious advantages – hyperlinks, information which could be updated at will, relative cheapness – were hailed as the death knell for the CD-ROM, but now that the Net is no longer the new kid on the block there’s room for sensible re-evaluation. And a mutually beneficial relationship is developing.

Steve Potts, associate director of the interactive design team at Fitch, explains: “The hybridisation has resuscitated the CD-ROM because it enables it to do two things well. Whereas in the past it only allowed a rich user interface, it can now be linked to a versatile and volatile database on the Web as well, changing its perception from data which is locked and quickly becomes stale or outdated to a medium which has a much greater use.”

One company gaining increasing experience in this area is Nicholson Advertising, whose CD-ROM for London housebuilder Berkeley Homes was shortlisted for a Revolution award. As a sales tool for prospective buyers of luxury apartments not yet in existence, it gives virtual tours, views from each room, design options and detailed information on the area – things a brochure simply couldn’t do. But best of all, it’s linked to a website that is only accessible via the CD-ROM and gives information on properties’ availability, stages of development, fluctuations in price – anything that is subject to change. This information is updated at least daily, sometimes hourly, by Nicholson Advertising account director Helen Calver.

“In the past, companies would use an expensive brochure backed by a completely unrelated website,” says Calver. “But the beauty of a CD-ROM is the way it can interact with the website.”

Another website-backed CD-ROM is the much lauded Homebeats, developed and produced by multimedia designer Arun Kundnani for the Institute of Race Relations and a recent winner of Best Educational CD-ROM in the British Interactive Multimedia Awards. Fusing commissioned music by Asian Dub Foundation with text, graphics, animation and video material it explores the history of race relations worldwide. Kundnani says: “The difference between a website and a CD-ROM is like that between a magazine and a book; the magazine/website presents fragments of stories and instalments which are regularly updated, whereas the structure of the book/CD allows a coherent narrative. It allows users to discover things for themselves, giving them hundreds of paths and ways to make connections between different stories which are all equally logical.”

His perception, one which probably has validity given that part of his job is to take multimedia into schools, is that teachers and schools have a pretty poor understanding and view of new media.

“I’d like to link the CD to the site and enable people to act rather than react, to produce and upload their own contributions and experiences, but that’s probably a bit ahead of most schools’ interests and compatabilities,” he explains. “Teachers are not being sold on the advantages of the media, they’re just given the negative aspects of not being up to speed with technology. So they don’t think in terms of ‘this is a fantastic tool’, but rather ‘books won’t exist in three years’ time so I have to learn this’. But that will hopefully change soon.”

Potts believes that not only is the CD-ROM already shedding its bastard-son status in new media, but that hybridisation could turn it into a giant. “A logical extension of interconnectivity is to make CD-ROMs portals, in the way the big search engines are seeking to do. The unique links created could be exploited with advertising, the revenue of which would offset the cost of production, allowing cheaper CD-ROMs and greater distribution,” he says. If he’s right, it might be advisable to brush up on those CD-ROM skills everyone dissuaded you from learning two years ago.

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