In the 90s, interactive, multimedia animation was the rage in educational technology. It served at least two purposes: multimedia reinforcement of abstract concepts and simulation of complex systems. Students learned better when information was presented in multiple modalities. Complex systems were more easily understood when a student could set up initial conditions and run a model for a length of time to see how variables changed over time. CD-ROM became the medium of choice for these large applications, able to store and transport large audio and movie files. Programs like Macromedia Director became the standard authoring environment and developed powerful scripting languages to allow for greater interactivity in these multimedia systems. Yet, these applications were easy enough for enterprising teachers and students to master.
Most projects were authored by university projects or schoolteachers, but some companies got into the mix with notable releases such as A.D.A.M., Maxis SimEarth/SimLife, Interactive Physics, and numerous literature and history multimedia collections. Students could watch a stage production of Macbeth while the text automatically scrolled in a sidebar. A.D.A.M. allowed students to peel away layers of the human body, zoom in on individual organs, and view organ systems in isolation from each other. Interactive Physics allowed students to learn mechanics by setting up physical systems that would be difficult to arrange in real life and then allowing time to run in order to see what happened to the objects contained therein.
The availability of free web sites, though text-heavy and multimedia-poor, captivated the education community more than commercial CD-ROM titles available for sale. Yet, bandwidth was not yet available for individual teachers to effectively distribute their own multimedia titles. At the time, I was building cell biology and inorganic chemistry multimedia animations using Strata Studio Pro and Macromedia Director. It took a lot of my time, but I enjoyed the process, used the animations in my classes, and entertained visions of commercial distribution and a supplemental income stream. Even in 1999, I could only upload one or two small sample movies in QuickTime format to my web site, and the Shockwave plug-in for Director was ineffective at porting CD-ROM based animations to the web. Macromedia Flash was becoming increasingly popular, yet it did not support the highly detailed bitmap art that I had created in Studio Pro.
The rise of the Internet torpedoed the multimedia CD-ROM industry. A.D.A.M. stopped development of new products, and its subscription-based online edition is never mentioned in schools. The company is repackaging itself as a provider of home medical advice. Having realized modest successes with SimEarth and SimLife, Maxis was working on a version of SimMars, which would have filled a unique niche coincident with the NASA missions to the red planet. However, Maxis discovered a huge commercial success with The Sims and canned the SimMars project. It has not since released an edutainment title. Knowledge Revolution sold Interactive Physics, and the new company stopped development aside from new versions to maintain Windows system compatibility. Video CD-ROMs to accompany literature completely disappeared.
Of course, we have gained a tremendous amount of education potential through the development and increasing interactivity of web sites and other Internet technologies. The ability to post and hyperlink great quantities of text/picture content is precious and unrivaled. Social software harnesses the human nature of teachers and students to create giant online communities of practice. Still, we have lost something useful from the visually enriched, interactive CD-ROM era. Though projects such as ChemSense and MarcoPolo demonstrate the potential of interactive multimedia content on the web, they pale in comparison to previous multimedia titles when evaluated along criteria of image quality, animation, and interactivity.
Will interactive multimedia animation make a comeback as Internet bandwidth continues to improve and wireless laptop access becomes ubiquitous? I saw a promising sign today: a little animation from Shedd Aquarium. Using Flash animation, the site allows users to “build a fish” selecting from different character traits and then see how it fares on the reef. Though the image quality is cartoonish and the system extremely simple, it invokes the spirit of SimLife. If this is a sign of the resurgence of interactive multimedia animation on the web, then I welcome it. Over the past two decades, desktop software evolved from a text-only medium into an interactive multimedia format. Will web software do the same?