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BBC ENTERPRISES has a new disc specifically designed for their AIV interactive video system that uses the BBC/PHILIPS VP415 LV-ROM player linked to a BBCIACORN AIV Master Series Computer.  The new disc is called The Ecodisc and offers the user the ability to simulate the management and environmental control of a real-life nature reserve.  The programme is based upon the Slapton Ley Nature Reserve in South Devon. 

It's a two-sided disc that comes in a box with full written support for both teacher and pupil - the disc has been designed with the new GCSE curriculum In mind.  (But there has also been interest from educationalists up to 1st year graduate level and some of the contents will also relate to primary school classes.)  There are 4,000 still photographs on the disc, 150+ film sequences and 1,000 Kbytes of overlay text data.  The interactive part of the disc is all on one side, the 'B' side is a conventional linear documentary Ecology & Conservation from the Science Topic series of programmes. 

It was during this BBC Schools series Science Topic that the idea for the Ecodisc arose, and additional film footage was shot at the time of the original programme with the ultimate aim of compiling the videodisc. The Ecodisc is not an afterthought.  The idea of Science Topic's Executive Producer, Peter Bratt, the disc represents a total of "seven person-years of work" in its preparation.  (This is presumably on the basis of 40-hour weeks, not all 168.  An attempt to clarify the point brought forth the response "Nobody works 40 hours at the BBC", but it was difficult to know quite how to interpret this!)

The Ecodisc has been designed with several educational applications in mind.  It is ideally suited to use on a one-to-one learning basis - the user taking prompts from the screen and inputting questions or initiating searches - the control of the disc being via the trackerball attached to the computer. Keyboard input is not required as all the video and on-screen moving the cursor with the trackerball and clicking the button to initiate a selection can access text displays.

The Slapton Ley Reserve is well documented with still photographs that show both the geography in systematic, map-like manner and close-up details of the wildlife, vegetation etc.  Seasonal changes are catered for by duplicating all the landscape photographs in both summer and wintertime - "a six month jump in a twenty-fifth of a second".  The simulation of the Reserve Manager's job involves responding to development, leisure and scientific proposals from outside parties and eliciting response from the disc to help decide their relative merits i.e. will a leisure proposal have an adverse effect on the natural environment?

Peter Bratt shows off The Ecodisc on the BBC/PHILIPS VP-415 LV-ROM player.  

Letters from various organisations suggesting such projects on the Reserve we shown on the disc as still frames. The producers have been visibly sensitive to the current trend of avoiding sexism by starting all the biters "Dear Sir or Madam" (though shouldn't half of them been "Dear Madam or Sir"?) but have revealed a certain political bias in some of the fictitious writers' names.  The "T. Hatcher" appended to one epistle can be written Off as a harmless bit of whimsy, but the choice of "G. Loot" for the name of a writer proposing a development in the reserve, by implication, negates the validity of investigating the project any further.  This is surely not the point of the exercise. 

Peter Bratt estimates it might take two days to explore the full potential I the disc, and what was shown at the launch demo would indeed tend to substantiate this.  Even some apparently straightforwardly addressed questions by on-screen commentator are designed to replay in random sequence. That means subsequent plays keep the viewer that bit more stimulated when repeating the programme. 

The disc was scheduled for late June se at a price of 169-00 + VAT.  It functions on any PAL LV player but will work properly and reveal its interactive capabilities when played the VP415.


The VP415 is, of course, better known the Domesday player and is an essential accessory to replay all those BBC AIV discs, either the two already in existence or those planned for the future.  The next title, targeted at industry and commerce and containing detailed maps down to street-level scale is due In Spring '88, but there are several other projects currently in development, some of which could make it to the market-place before that date. 

Peter Bratt himself is keen to keep the development of these BBC programmes restricted to the full exploitation of the AIV technology and does not see much future in any less hi-tech 'fillers' of more readily accessible programmes that might be made available at a lower price and more frequent intervals.  (Just to illustrate the gulf that exists between consumer and professional applications of LV, the marketing department of BBC ENTERPRISES had little knowledge of the titles already issued under the BBC banner and are (were!) under the impression that programmes of the like of David Attenborough's Life On Earth were available on consumer videodisc.). 

The 'full technology' approach of a completely integrated learning package is what he sees as the only sensible exploitation of the disc medium, and he envisages little future in the concept of producing low-cost, data-base type CAV discs around which teachers and pupils might assemble their own index and application software for later refinement into finished AIV-type discs. (Although the sales blurb for The Ecodisc does suggest such an application for the documentary programme on the other side of the disc.)  Long-term, his is the sensible way to exploit the capabilities of the technology, but it does mean that both hardware and software are going to remain pricey.  The basic Domesday package runs to over 5,000 (though educationalists who commit themselves before the end of the year can obtain discounts that bring the price down to a smidgen under 3,000). Either way, this is a lot of money to be tied up unless the equipment is going to be used to its maximum potential. Remember, the ultimate appeal of any computer-aided learning station is that it achieves what public education can never hope to - a one-to one tutor/pupil relationship.  In the simplest of terms that means a learning station for each pupil.  Not one per class. Multiplying 3,000 by 30 or so is a calculation beyond all but the most progressive of educationalists.

The Domesday discs have been eliciting response from overseas as well as UK enquirers and several countries have been showing an interest in duplicating the time capsule concept of the UK project.  Additionally, BBC ENTERPRISES Is set to introduce a series of floppy disks designed to interface with the Domesday discs, allowing users to combine their own data with that on the discs, and also to extract data and pictures from them In the form of a 'slideshow'.

Although without the data the price may seem high, it is now possible to purchase the Domesday discs on their own too.  Originally only available as a part of the complete cornputer/disc-player package, the pair of Domesday discs can now be bought (with the support literature) for around 250 - but only direct from BBC ENTERPRISES. Again, it needs to be pointed out that you need the VP415 to extract the data encoded on the discs, but the video stills and moving sequences will function on any PAL LV player.