Multimedia: covered in animal bytes

Roger Frost

Animal welfare is increasingly important to children, a fact reflected in the growing number of CD-Roms being published on the subject. So popular is the topic that if you do go down to the woods today, there's a strong chance that all the teddy bears will be busy on a photo shoot or will have upped and left for Hollywood.

Apart from cute and cuddly, what should a CD-Rom about animals be like? Should it be a rich database, with plenty of entries between skink and skunk? Could be dull, that. Should it have pictures, film, squawks and squeaks of everything that lives? Might have trouble fitting all that in. In trying to please everyone, including a parent told to make a badger costume for the school play, the publishers have got a difficult job; it certainly isn't like any picnic I've been on. Fortunately, there is some lovely stuff about.

Animal Safari, aimed at juniors, is a real beauty. You choose your habitat - land, sea, air or safari - then a group, such as birds or fish, then a topic, such as owls. Once you've selected your topic you get a spoken introduction, and you can click through several pages about owl behaviour, feeding, breeding and so on.

Safari doesn't let you stop for a snack. So, as you're digesting one fact - chewing on a lizard, say - a phone on the screen rings to throw you another amazing fact, a rucksack bulges to offer a video snippet, and "see also" buttons beckon your clicking finger.

With its bright screen design and pop-up puzzles, children are sure to hog this. There are luscious, razor-sharp photographs of vampire bats, snakes and other squeamish stuff, most of which can be dropped into a "scrapbook" as the children explore. The text, which can also be scrapbooked, will suit top juniors.

While this disc isn't encyclopedic, the glossary, simple index and exciting treatment of the subject easily compensate.

Microsoft's Explorapedia is another smart title, and it may even have the edge on Safari. The children can again visit habitats, this time more precise locations such as a coral reef. They then choose, say, the shark, and get animation showing how it swims, with pop-up information panels. It is strange to find "the universe" included as a habitat, though the section includes handy material about the moon and the planets. This disc has plenty, cut into manageable, small chunks, and is good value.

What immediately impresses is that the text is read by children - and they're not Americans - at more or less the right level. Some reading is required though.

Another plus is the variety of activities and projects. For example, there are questions with clues as to where to find the answers, fun truefalse quizzes, and plenty of project ideas. Unusually, the text and pictures can be copied, and there are even buttons on a console that can launch a word processor or painting program. There really is lots to explore here.

Another endorsement is that Explorapedia was selected for a National Council for Education and Technology CD-Rom initiative this year.

Survival takes an approach that is much more useful with older children. Instead of habitats, it is organised into themes: senses, flight and hunters.

Each of these categories is explored via a "documentary", with speech, pictures and film. You might let this run through the first time, but next time round click on the pictures to pick up facts about, say, how dolphins hear sounds. It is well done. There are ticks to remind you where you've been, and you can read the script as you listen to it.

You will also find a database, arranged according to the same themes, containing vivid photographs and animal sounds. The clear text and the pictures are expressly intended for school projects, but it's sad that Survival gives short measure on thrills, although many will appreciate the absence of distractions.

Emme's Animals is also for the older group. It covers lots of animals, including the skink - although it's well camouflaged in the index as a sand skink. You can mouse over a map covered with animal pictures, then read and see more pictures. You can visit an ecosystem, such as the ocean, and dive deeper to find out about whales. But Animals tries to do too much and garnishes with spurious video clips and a stuffy expat-style commentary.

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