When I learned that my personal hero, Professor Stephen W. Hawking, had sat in the center seat of USS Enterprise and looked around from that vantage point, I was jealous. I'm not as jealous any more, now that I've done the same thing - virtually - thanks to Simon & Schuster Interactive's first virtual reality offering, Star Trek: The Next Generation Interactive Technical Manual.
The Interactive Technical Manual was a hotly anticipated product for several reasons. First, now that the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation has ended, this CD becomes the definitive reference for the series. Second, this CD debuts Apple's QuickTime VR technology. QuickTime VR extends the animation functions of QuickTime with the awareness of spatial relationships needed for virtual reality programming.
I waited with bated breath for this CD-ROM and - when I opened the package - my heart was pounding because I feared I'd hyped the product in my own mind so much that I'd be disappointed when trying it. I wasn't disappointed!
Installation of the program is simple. You copy QuickTime 2.0 from the CD to your Extensions folder and then copy one of two software folders to your hard disk, depending on how much disk space you wish to devote to the program. Once that's done, you double-click the Interactive Technical Manual icon to run the program. Simon & Schuster provided both 68K and PowerPC versions of the software; the version you don't use needn't be copied from the CD, or you can keep both on a hard disk that travels between computers.
When you launch the software, the "LCARS" computer system from Star Trek's USS Enterprise appears to take over your Macintosh. The futuristic user interface even includes the computer's voice as portrayed by Majel Barrett (Gene Roddenberry's wife). You can go on a guided tour of Enterprise or go off on your own to explore the ship. You can also use an alphabetical index to jump right to information you're interested in, from warp propulsion system theory to the personal files of Lieutenant Commander Geordi LaForge. After you find something of interest, the LCARS interface makes it easy to access related areas.
Jonathan Frakes, in his TV persona of Commander Riker, narrates the guided tour of Enterprise. Riker takes you through such areas as the exterior of Enterprise, the Bridge, the Captain's Ready Room, Ten Forward (the ship's laid-back tavern), Sickbay, Engineering, and the Holodeck (a 24th century form of virtual reality). Upon entering each area, Riker describes the area and explains its purpose on the ship. During the commentary, the point-of-view pans the entire area in question so you see everything. You can wander around and explore every area of the tour at any time.
What makes all of this work is Apple's (as yet unreleased to the public) QuickTime VR technology. QuickTime VR is based on QuickTime 2.0, but includes important additional capabilities. Rather than just offer video sequences, QuickTime VR incorporates spatial information about each locale and what surrounds it. As a result, the user can pan through two 360 degree axes (horizontal and vertical), and can move around the "floor," providing a view of any corner of each room. With this technology you can walk yourself from the main turbolift door on the bridge, across the back railing where the Security and Tactical station is, down the starboard ramp (turning your head to take a look at the Enterprise dedication plaque as you pass by it), to the Captain's chair where you can look around to the chairs to either side, look up to the transparent dome above or down to the instrument panels located on the arms of your command chair. Software such as Virtus Walkthrough has offered such capabilities for mathematically rendered environments, but didn't provide a way of incorporating a real location into the tour.
As you walk about Enterprise you can examine individual objects like the dedication plaque mentioned above. When you do so, text appears describing the object in question, and the computer offers a spoken summary. With some objects and rooms you can to punch up production notes that tell you "behind the scenes facts" about them. (Do you know after whom Captain Picard's pet fish is named?)
QuickTime VR enables you to handle certain objects by grabbing them with the mouse and rotating them in three dimensions. In the case of a medical tricorder, the simulation is so good that lights and dials continue to blink while you manipulate the object! Also visually impressive is a user-controllable exterior view, in which the USS Enterprise, a large Starbase, and a planet appear. Apple's QuickTime specialists believe this feature will be especially useful in museum catalog CDs. Such products will allow museum virtual visitors not only to walk from room to room viewing the exhibits, but also to pick up sculptures and other artifacts for closer examination from any angle, a luxury most museums don't dare offer.
What kind of resources does a program like this take? The Interactive Manual requires at least 8 MB of memory and about 1.5 MB of hard disk space all told. (You can copy less to your hard disk, but the program's responsiveness will suffer.) The native PowerPC version requires comparable resources. Testing on both a Power Mac 6100 and a Quadra 660AV showed good performance in both environments, though some canned video sequences (from Commander Riker's tour) jumped a bit on a Quadra 610 that was also handling some background tasks (not surprising). The virtual reality pans were good on all of the tested systems, as was the ability to handle objects and rotate them to view all sides. If you don't have 8 MB to play around with the program will run in as little as 5 MB, but the virtual reality features may be unavailable.
So what's the final word for the Star Trek: The Next Generation Interactive Technical Manual? Easy. If you are a Mac-owning Star Trek fan with 8 MB of memory and a CD-ROM drive, or you know such a person, then I've solved your Christmas gift-giving problems this year. This CD is simply a must have! The subject matter is elegantly handled, the user interface is well thought out and totally in character, and with over 630 MB of raw data they've included nearly everything that could be included. My only complaint is that I wanted the CD-ROM drive to access information faster than it was designed to.
Even if you're not a Star Trek fan this CD-ROM is worth seeing just to view the incredible potential offered by the QuickTime VR technology. If Apple plays its cards right this technology could take the educational and architectural markets by storm. Imagine being an automotive student and viewing car engine parts from all sides simply by dragging your mouse. The real estate industry could likewise be transformed. As you walk through Enterprise imagine being able to do the same thing with the design of your new house before you lay the foundation! Apple did QuickTime VR right.
The Star Trek: The Next Generation Interactive Technical Manual is published by Simon & Schuster Interactive and is available now; the street price is about $40. Rush right out; you won't regret it! And now, if everyone will excuse me, I'm going to take a walk down to Main Engineering. Mr. LaForge promised me a lesson in warp field dynamics.
[Doc's gushing seemed a bit excessive until I saw the CD last night. I've known for a while what QuickTime VR can do, but seeing is believing. This thing screams. -Mark]
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Simon & Schuster Interactive