Home again with Microsoft

by Alan Zisman (c) 1994. First published in Our Computer Player, August 1994

Microsoft Art Gallery, Microsoft Dinosaurs, and Microsoft
Space Shuttle

The '90s are supposed to be the decade for 'cocooning'. That, at least,
is the buzzword coined by media trend-spotter Faith Popcorn. Instead of
going out to movies, we're supposed to rent videos. Instead of spending
money traveling, we're expected to buy new furniture to cozy up the
living room.

And just look at Microsoft mogul Bill Gates... having spent the '80s
building the super-corporation, now he can focus on building his
house, carved into the side of a hill overlooking Lake Washington.
While his Porsche remains in mothballs because it can't pass emissions
tests, he's buying up the digital rights for fine art. And not long
ago, the world's richest young bachelor (gasp!) got married.

So it shouldn't be any surprise that Microsoft has been putting much
of its new product energies into its Home series of software.

When it was first announced, Microsoft Home was a re-packaging of
existing products... Flight Simulator, Works, Publisher, Encarta. But
the past year has seen a steady stream of new software aimed at the
small business or home markets. Microsoft even has a travelling
roadshow that recently passed through Vancouver, just to promote its
view of Microsoft Home.

I recently got a chance to try out three new products, aimed
specifically at cocooners of all ages. Two CD-ROM products, Microsoft
Art Gallery and Microsoft Dinosaurs are already on store shelves in
both Windows and Mac versions, listing at $99 (CDN).
Space Simulator, a DOS-only product floppy disks-based product, was still being beta-
tested, but should be available soon, with an announced list price of $
89 (CDN).

These products, are difficult to categorize... they're not games, at
least not in the traditional sense, although they all can be fun. They're not
strictly educational, although you can learn from each. They're not
simply reference materials, like a CD-ROM encyclopedia, or my
favorite, Multimedia Cows. While aimed at different audiences, they're
all trying to get people to use their computers to expand their
world... go places, and try things that wouldn't ordinarily be
happening in their den.


Microsoft Art Gallery lies somewhere between an expensive coffee table
art book, and an actual trip to the museum. It presents the entire
collection of London's National Gallery, in digital form.

Why the National Gallery, you might ask? Why not the Louvre, the
Metropolitan Museum, or some other higher profile museum? Well, as a
relatively small museum, the British National Gallery had a
collection that was the right size to fit on a single disk. But even
more important, the National Gallery had already digitized its
collection on its own-- this CD-ROM is based on the museum's Micro
Gallery, up and running in the museum to acquaint visitors to its

This is a visually stunning product. The pictures are optimized
to run on 256 colour (8-bit) video cards, looking every bit as good
as full 24-bit colour, but at less cost and better performance. (
Besides... 24-bit colour pictures would result in files that are three
times as big, and would no longer fit on a single disk).

There's a simple, but elegant interface, with pictures on the right,
and discussion on the left. Words that are highlighted in muted tones
are hypertext links... to other paintings or definitions. A few
buttons on the bottom let you move forward or back a page, or return
to the table of contents. A single menu lets you print or copy to the
clipboard your choice of text or picture.

Unlike a traditional art book, you can approach the paintings in a
variety of ways. You can focus on individual artists, or on countries
or time periods. Choose a theme ("Nudes", "Still lives", "Work") and
get pages of thumbnails of related paintings. There's an extensive glossary. And there are four '
guided tours', each complete with narration, in a fine British accent,
and animations. Learn about perspective, or making paintings, or take
a tour 'beneath the varnish' to see what can be learned with x-rays
and other high-tech tricks.

This product will maintain Microsoft's reputation as the class act of
the multimedia business.


A somewhat different audience may exist for Microsoft Dinosaurs.

There are several software products aiming at the public's fascination
with these giant, extinct reptiles (we reviewed Knowledge Adventure's
Dinosaur Adventure in July 1993), again, Microsoft lays claim to being
the most attractive and classiest.

We start off with slightly ominous music, complete with large animal
sounds... and a background of chiselled stone, all to give us that
sense of being on a dinosaur hunter's 'dig'. But this is not a dusty
trip to acedemia.

Instead, like in Art Gallery, we get a variety of ways to explore the
material. A Timeline. An Atlas. Dinosaur Families. 16 different guided
tours, with these like 'Dinosaur Families', 'The Baddest of the Bad',
or 'Smart or Dumb'. Each is a nice combination of entertainment and
education, unlike Art Gallery, aimed at a bright elementary student.

Finally,  there are half a dozen dino-movies... actual clips from the
PBS Dinosaurs TV series. These looked very grainy and jerky running
full screen on my system, but were quite viewable when I switched the
setting to run in a window... except for a slight flaw. They had a bad
tendancy to place their window behind the main program-- I had to
minimize the program window in order to actually watch the video clip.

As well, there's an added bonus. An options button lets you run a
slide show of the program, or select any of the pictures as Windows
wallpaper. You also get Dinosaur footprints or faces as optional
screen savers.

Hours of fun for any kid or adult with a passion for the big lizards.


After traveling to London and prehistoric earth, this third product,
the only one not on a CD-ROM, and not for Windows, took me to the ends
of the Universe itself.

I received a beta-version of the not yet released Space Simulator,
shipping on four floppy disks, but expanding to about 8 1/2 meg on my
hard drive. At first, it wouldn't run, until I slowed down, looked at
the manual, and reconfigured my computer to provide the program with
about a meg of expanded memory. It's too bad that (like its cousin MS
Flight Simulator,) this program requires this increasingly archaic
trick with memory in order to run well.

Once I got it going, this program proved to be well thought out, and a
lot of fun. Like the ten-year old Flight Simulator, it's a product of
the Bruce Artwick Organization. And like that program, it's not a
traditional game.

There's no plot to speak of... instead, you pick a scenario, and
develop skills. In the older program, these skills involved learning to
fly a light plane. Now, you can pick spacecraft ranging from an Apollo
Lunar Lander or Shuttle to a future (but plausible) interstellar

You can rendezvous with a space station in near-Earth orbit, or
navigate around our Solar System.  Or you can choose to take off for
other stars, or even leave our galaxy and head out into deep space. While the graphics are not as
detailed or spectacular as some dedicated astronomy programs, such as
Distant Suns, they are still quite good.

The manual is quite helpful... letting you practice a range of skills
necessary to successfully pilot your chosen spacecraft. Remember,
there are no brakes on a rocket!

And while you're learning, there are some handy helpers, that may not
be available if you ever get out to the real thing. First, there's a
useful autopilot... you can choose a mission, or just a piece of one,
and let the autopilot handle the hard parts for you. And even at high
speeds, some scenarios could take anywhere from days to decades (or
longer) to carry out. Space Simulator lets you compress
time, ultimately making years pass in a matter of seconds. While this
is just what you want for the tedious parts of your voyage, remember
that those delicate docking operations will work much better if you
get back to 'real' time.

I wouldn't be surprised if this program develops a cult following of
would-be astronauts. People like me, one of 50,000 Canadians who, a
year or two ago, answered a Canadian Space Agency's call for job
applications for a trip on the Space Shuttle.

Pinned to a bulleting board at my work, I have their letter, turning
me down. At 43, I guess they thought I was just too old. Well, maybe
if I spend a lot of time practing with MS Space Simulator, I can get
them to reconsider.

Sometimes my family complains that we don't seem to ever travel
anywhere... but with these three programs and a home computer,
Microsoft has given us an opportunity to go to places to which our
neighborhood travel agent could never book us flights!

(Note from the year 2003): The above article was originally published in 1994, as a review. A decade and more later, I've gotten a series of emails from  fans hoping that I could sell them a copy of this software or direct them to a place where it is still available. While I have reviewed software since 1991, I am not a vendor of r any products. I suggest to everyone looking for copies of older software to check at eBay or at OldSoftware.com.If you check on my Files webpages, you'll find links to a number of (mostly freeware) downloadable software, some of which may be good replacements for older programs.
-- AZ (September 15, 2003)

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan