The Cyber Space

Because it's normally software that nets all of the attention in the realm of new media, we often forget about the hardware that makes it all possible. In this installment of the Cyber Space, we focus our gaze on the latter...
November 1, 1998

Because it’s normally software that nets all of the attention in the realm of new media, we often forget about the hardware that makes it all possible. In this installment of the Cyber Space, we focus our gaze on the latter and check out the Philips Magnavox DVD815 player and Microsoft’s new wunderkind, Actimates.


DVD players are new on the scene, but while pretty much everyone has heard of them, they’re not quite ripe enough to be flying off the shelves. VCRs still rule the roost, but, at this rate, not for long.

To put the machine through its paces, we test drove the Spice Girls, and their unanimously junior-endorsed flick Spice World. It immediately became evident that this machine is loaded with cool features such as:

* a zoom function that is simply outstanding in both full motion and freeze-frame-it’s awesome to see all of the little details that normally fly by;

* a highly visual menu with plenty of icon-based multi-language options if, for example, you’re a German-speaking Spaniard living in France;

* six-channel surround-sound that kids will love when it comes to special effects or new format sing-alongs like Spice World.

One of the machine’s best features is its ability to search. Most DVDs are arranged in `chapters’, so you can jump to your favorite scenes at the press of a button. Soon, they will come with alternate endings, giving the viewer a choice and keeping kids endlessly entertained.

The CD-sized discs themselves are highly kid-friendly. They normally hold the movie on one side and goodies like outtakes, directors comments and extra scenes on the other. This sort of functionality can easily be expanded for cross-promotion of related offerings, giving the viewer the option to get information (on products, ordering, events, where to buy) at the click of a button; the amount of information DVDs hold makes this a natural extension.

The slickness of the entire package suffers a little in the potential to mix-up the discs themselves because they often aren’t labeled or branded with graphics like music CDs. Another negative is the disc scratch factor that comes into play with kid users, but notice how these detriments have more to do with the discs, and less to do with the player.

The crystal-clear picture quality and extremely high functionality are what make this DVD machine so outstanding. In conjunction with the B-side value-addeds that come with the movies, watching your favorite picture just became a spectacular event.

DW from Actimates

Have your typical doll playthings evolved since the days of Barbie and Ken? Well, DW-Arthur’s younger sister (from the series of the same name)-one of Microsoft’s Actimates, is the latest in doll technology, so we thought we’d put her through the paces.

DW is not your typical doll. She has a prodigious vocabulary of up to 14,000 words, and she moves and gestures while talking. Squeeze a toe, an ear or her watch, and she comes alive, reciting the alphabet (complete with word suggestions) and saying ‘silly’ phrases. Leave her alone for a minute and she prompts you to keep playing. Although it sometimes seems like she has her own agenda-i.e. continually asking for attention until you give it to her (just like a real kid!)-it’s the fact that she does it unprompted that adds incredible realism.

An extra transmitter package lets DW interact with the enclosed Arthur video or the Arthur TV show on PBS. Immediately, you expect her to have plenty of witty commentary in response to what you’re watching, but it tends to be outweighed by giggling, squealing and constant ‘Oh Arthur’s’ and ‘yikes.’ The expectation is that she’ll have plenty more to say as the technology continues to evolve.

As with anything, DW isn’t perfect; continually squeeze the same appendage, and she starts rapping like Will Smith. Also, the word `creepy’ came up more than once when her abilities were demonstrated to adults (but was never an issue with kids), so there is a bit of a mental hurdle present. Luckily, DW is fully interactive on her own, because having to lug around your child as well as the transmitter, video cords and power adapter, would be a hassle.

On the whole, DW is pretty phenomenal, pushing inanimate interaction to a whole new level. If there’s one thing that might make you hesitate, however, it would be that this toy is literally teaching your child (versus a time when kids used their own imaginations). So as with everything these days (especially TV), parents will need to feel highly confident that the values and information being conveyed is in line with their own. After experiencing Actimates, it’s clear that Ken and Barbie need to get their Masters degrees.

Next month, ‘The Cyber Space’ checks out new on-line advertising initiatives.

Greg Skinner is the director of Mina, a market intelligence company with expertise in the youth market. He also admits to having an unhealthy obsession with the World Wide Web. KidScreen asked him to do some browsing on our behalf and report on the latest developments in new media and how these innovations are having an impact on the kids entertainment industry. He is still at it. If you have any suggestions or ideas for topics you’d like to see in ‘The Cyber Space,’ please contact

Greg Skinner at 416-504-6800 (phone), 416-504-4054 (fax) or (e-mail).

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