Jack Kenny discovers narrative depths and musical heights on the west coast. In California it was the gold rush in the hills, then the computers in the valleys, now it's the software on the coast. The west coast of the United States, from Seattle down to San Diego, is providing fertile ground for new software.
Just out of San Francisco, between the main highway north and the Pacific coast, is the headquarters of Br?derbund Software Inc. This is probably the best example of software to link home and school and the Br?derbund logo is on some of the most imaginative products aimed at young children.
Its first success was with programs such as Paintshop, Kid Pix and the game Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? The company, which is now 14-years-old (a senior citizen in the world of computers), committed itself to CD-Rom about two years ago.
A couple of floors at Br?derbund's HQ are dedicated to what they call the studio. The comparison between Br?derbund and early Hollywood is not fanciful. Productions such as Just Grandma and Me and Kid Pix have the playfulness, simplicity and wit of early Disney cartoons.
The development of new productions is taken as seriously as a film project, with the same planning and scripting and testing of ideas. The production teams have specialisms; one team will deal with sound, another with scripts, another with animation.
Eric Winkler, public relations manager, explained that sound is something that seems to be tagged on to many CD-Roms. "We think that sound is very important, an integral part of the multimedia. All of our products contain a lot of sound. For instance, in Kid Pix every brush, every stamp has a sound. " Amanda Silber, the public relations co-ordinator, explains that "We go for things that you can come back to time after time with different paths through. We want it to be intuitive, appealing, warm, wholesome, comforting."
The new version of Kid Pix, Kid Pix Studio (Mac), is on CD-Rom and there is enough of the original to give security and enough new material to justify upgrading. The programming of the new version is so imaginative and skilful that it is possible to imagine five-year-olds creating QuickTime movies.
A current production is Math Workshop (MacMPC). Difficult abstract concepts are clarified with humour and verve, so that working with this material will be both a pleasure and a learning experience.
Fractions for instance are explored by the use of rhythm and music. Seven games cover the subject areas of arithmetic, including logic and strategy. Also on the disc is a video guide for parents which explains how best to use the material on the disc.
The Amazing Writing Machine (Mac) is a program designed to encourage young children to experiment with writing stories, letters, journals, poems and essays. It includes a Bright Ideas Tool for generating stories, a cut-down version of Kid Pix for graphics, secret codes and desktop publishing.
Br?derbund supplies curriculum materials to go with most of the programs. The curriculum guideline books are well produced and are a good source of ideas for integrating work into the classroom. "Both parents and teachers can use the curriculum materials," says Winkler. "We hope that parents feel that programs like Kid Pix will have a long shelf life and grow with the children."
He defines the main criteria for a Br?derbund product: "Is it fun? That's what we brainstorm about. We are not aiming directly at education; we are aiming at children. When we have something prepared we get in a whole bunch of kids and see what they make of it."
What about the future? "By Christmas we believe that there will be 10 million CD-Rom drives in the US. That is a challenge," says Winkler. "Our main competition will remain television. We are competing for children's time so we have to make our software as entertaining, more involving and more interactive than television is."
The future might be different. Br?derbund also commissions work and encourages developers to bring work to them. Myst (MacMPC), a multimedia CD-Rom, came via this route. The program, aimed at an older market, was developed for Br?derbund by two brothers, Robyn and Rand Miller, at their company, Cyan. Since its release a few months ago, it has won many awards in the United States. To call it a game is hardly accurate. It is probably the first major piece of software that has hinted at the narrative depths that multimedia can explore. It is likely that a disc of this quality will open up a whole new genre and maybe a new direction for the company.
Br?derbund products are held by a number of education software houses. Its distributor is Electronic Arts, tel: 0753 549442