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THE GOODS | CYBURBIA

This Disc Is a Real Eye Opener

June 17, 1997|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When it comes to educational CD-ROMs, kids seem to be getting all the good stuff.

There are numerous discs on the market for the younger set that teach math, history, geography and other topics in an informative and entertaining fashion.

In contrast, most educational CD-ROMs for adults seem uninspired, frivolous (how many adults truly crave badly animated cartoon characters?), text-laden and dull.

But "Illusion," a new educational disc produced by Scientific American and the Byron Preiss Multimedia Company, strives to present scientific material in a multimedia format that is engaging without resorting to superfluous gimmicks, cloying cuteness and eye-straining text.

For the most part, it succeeds admirably. At its best, "Illusion" is not only informative but even inspiring. After all, its topic is, quite literally, the way in which we perceive through our eyes the world around us.

Our eyes have to resort to incredibly sophisticated trickery to accomplish their task. As is pointed out in the introductory section, the retina of the eye--onto which the images we "see" are projected--is a two dimensional surface. The brain has to take these images from each eye and blend them in a way that will produce a perception of the world that has space and depth, as well as color and motion.

The aim of this handsomely designed CD-ROM is to explain the mechanics of this phenomenon, as well as the fascinating optical illusions our eyes can play upon us. "Illusions lead us astray," says hostess Norma Lana, "by the same mechanisms that help us see correctly."

"Illusion," which lists for $29.95, is divided into six sections: space, form, organization, motion, brain-eye and color-light. Any one of the six can keep you busy for hours.

In the space section, for example, you can find several examples of trompe l'oeil, the artistic form that seeks to give the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface, with an explanation of how our eye-brain connection is tricked into thinking items painted on a wall seem to have depth.

There are illustrated, audio narratives from artists, pilots and others, who talk about how they take into account the mechanics of seeing to do their work. One particularly delightful narrative is by Teller, the magician, who speaks about how 19th century magicians made heavy use of visual illusions.

"Illusion" is at its best when it accompanies these features with animated or interactive graphics. At times, however, the CD-ROM does resort to heavy uses of text that would be far better presented in actual print.

One of the best accolades for "Illusion" is that it subtly conveys a powerful message--that seeing is not always believing.

Even an understanding of the science involved is no guarantee that an accurate perception will follow. "Conscious knowledge of the illusion does little to dispel the fact that, from one particular perspective," Lana warns, "what we are seeing is an impossibility."

*

Cyburbia's e-mail address is david.colker@latimes.com.

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