Taking a Rom turn

The death of the CD-ROM has been heralded for years,so why do people keep bringing out new ones? Yolanda Zappaterra assesses three recent releases

What exactly is the point of CD-ROMs? There was a moment back in 1990 when we thought they were cool – a blip quickly followed by the backlash, which pointed out that you could access information more quickly in a printed encyclopaedia than Grolier’s, it was hellish listening to the cheesy music and there never seemed to be a way out of them.

Seven years on, how much has changed? Some sad digital publishers are still out there trying to make us pay 40 for what would look and work better in a book, while multimedia graduates are trying to mould a new art form using the medium’s full capabilities.

Icograda’s FHK Henrion, two years in the making, sits uncomfortably between the two. Icograda has to be applauded for its backing of this long-term project, and its decision to kick off with one of the twentieth century’s most influential and well-respected multidisciplinary designers. The CD’s main claim to fame seems to be the ARIADNE system, developed over four years by Mike Hope at Nottingham Trent University. ARIADNE (Archival Retrieval Interface for Acknowledged Designer Network Exploration) is a series of templates designed specifically to house designer databases, and is something of which Mike Hope should be justifiably proud, but a selling point it’s not. While the CD consists of a comprehensive collection of Henrion’s work, and has a useful search facility, it’s hard to see exactly what it offers that existing works on Henrion don’t. It runs pretty slowly, there are annoying blips each time you do something and there’s a solemn air of reverence about the whole thing which doesn’t gel with the medium.

A CD which uses the medium far better is the Musée D’Orsay: Virtual Visit. It’s hard to fault this one as you wander round the rooms and zoom in on the work to receive informed commentary on more than 200 paintings. Sculpture can be viewed from four sides, a guide selects eight paintings of interest based on your previous selections, you can build up an album and you can even connect to the Internet. Its strength lies in the fact that such a wealth of information (including an index, chronology and movements) is easy to navigate. Its one weakness is the fact that there’s no search facility. Churlish maybe, but it seems a glaring omission.

At the other end of the spectrum and bang up-to-date is the latest venture from Neville Brody’s Research Studio. Laboratory: Urban Feedback by Sophie Greenfield and Giles Rollestone at the Royal College of Art’s computer-related design department is the first in a proposed series of CD-ROMs “encapsulating all areas of artistic and experimental content, from music to interactive movies and multiple media explorations”. Despite the beautiful and sometimes haunting imagery, any meaning in the work seems to be swamped by the technology and the latest multimedia gimmicks.

Ultimately, the main strength of CD-ROMs is their ability to store a huge amount of information. Whether they’re any good or not depends solely on the quality of the information on them.

For information on FHK Henrion call Mike Hope on 0115 9418418. Musée D’Orsay: Virtual Visit costs 39.99 from CD-ROM stockists. Laboratory: Urban Feedback, costs 19.95 from Fontworks.

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