Tuesday, March 28, 2017

GEOSAFARI® CD-ROMS (1995)

GEOSAFARI® CD-ROM  (1995)

by EDUCATIONAL INSIGHTS


Original GeoSafari
The GeoSafari CD-ROM series was based on the original multiple award-winning 'plastic/electronic' GeoSafari introduced in 1987. It was an extraordinary educational experience and was hugely successful in the school and specialty educational store market. I believe it sold over a million copies. My group's challenge was to transform this experience into the new multi-media CD-ROM format, adding all the digital features it offered: voice, animations, video, record-keeping and much more: Simply put, we wanted to bring GeoSafari into the coming digital age.

We  created four GeoSafari CD-ROM titles. GEOGRAPHY, HISTORY, SCIENCE and ANIMALS. To give you an idea of the fun, learning and gameplay here is an ANIMALS game called 'Animal Sound-Off'. Now, GeoSafari was designed for ages 8 and up, as reading was required for almost every game, but as you'll see here Stephanie Ortiz, age 5, found a game where reading wasn't required and got pretty good at it. In this game she's playing against her older brother Jasson, age 22, who has never seen the game before and she's 'showing him the ropes'....

video


Another note: When Stephanie is trying to tell Jasson that the right answer is 'the Penguin...the Penguin' it's because she can't read yet and when she can, she'll not only see the written name but find that for every entry in every game there is a full glossary page with great information about that entry. Chances are she'll never forget the Kookaburra again. And probably neither will you.


Next I've picked out a couple of questions from three (of fifteen total) of the Animal games, NAME THAT BIRD CALL, SHARKS and SKULLS to give you an idea of the various formats, playpatterns and 'payoffs' we built into all our GeoSafari titles.

video

Ok.Hopefully that will give you some idea of the fun and learning in the GeoSafari CD-ROM series. I didn't even mention the educational 'GeoFacts' that popped up for every question or the medals you earned in your medal case if you answered all the questions in a game correctly on the first try or the digital trophy you earned if you completed all the games  perfectly. And most importantly, GeoSafari was designed to be played by families as well as individuals. The 'answer clock' could be set for shorter times to 'handicap' older players. Learning and fun (for everyone) was guaranteed with the GeoSafari CD-ROMs.

Next I've selected a couple of questions each from the SCIENCE, HISTORY and GEOGRAPHY titles to give you just a small taste of the content, gameplay and fun we've included.

video



GEOSAFARI CD-ROM SERIES: THE STORY
The Original GeoSafari

“It was the best of jobs, it was the worst of jobs”….that’s the way I felt trying to put together the product that was to become the award winning GeoSafari CD-ROM series. You see, this was the early days of the CD-ROM revolution and what I didn’t realize was that while the original plastic GeoSafari was a great, great product and a huge hit, Educational Insights’ markets were the schools and ‘specialty’ toy and education stores….not the mass market (Toys R US)… and not digital products at all. So while some schools had Apple computers at this time (1991), a pitiful few had CD-ROMS attached to them. The only way to make a product like this successful was to get it into the mass market which meant Apple and Microsoft Windows versions available at Best Buy, Comp USA and other mass market retailers… and this just wasn’t anywhere near Educational Insights’ 'comfort zone'.

So although I had a ‘go-ahead’ to develop the CD-ROM, it was with a certain shall I say, lack of support, or at least apprehension from the company. And rather than start directly on the project, I was directed to work on other, non-digital products while the CD-ROM project was ‘discussed’. A year was lost.

Now I had a vision of what the game would look and feel like and the technology was around so that we could have a human voice talking to to kids by their own name as they played. I also knew that in a ‘general education’ game like GeoSafari, we’d probably have to be telling kids that their answers were wrong more than once before they got it right. I needed a voice that could tell you that you were mistaken without turning you off, one that could actually encourage you to try again. So one day I’m driving on the 405 Freeway when a song comes on the radio by Richie Havens. Richie Havens! Yes! Now Richie and I go way back. We’re both Brooklyn boys and every so often our paths would cross on something amazing. The previous time was in 1981 when we helped our mutual friend Capt. Michael Sandlofer rescue Physty, a baby sperm whale that came ashore in New York. (You can read about this below in the blog entry PHYSTY and even see Jimmy Callanan’s great movie there). But I digress. 

I found Richie’s agent in NYC and flew in to see if he’d be willing to be the voice of GeoSafari. I honestly didn’t know if he’d even remember me but when he walked into the room he gave me the biggest bear hug and smile….”Stanley, Stanley, Stanley every ten years or so you come into my life with something wonderful….” I was so happy. Richie 
Richie Havens, R.I. P.

loved the GeoSafari idea even though his part was initially to be in the recording booth for hours on end recording thousands of kids names and other comments and questions for the game, while back in California we were assembling all the programming elements and photos, animations and videos that would make up the total experience. That was still more than a year away.

Lots of people know Richie from his legendary Woodstock performance and from his great music but he always was doing something positive for kids and even had started his own environmental group called the NATURAL GUARD in Connecticut. 

One anecdote: I had Richie’s office send me a cassette of some of Richie’s commercial ‘voice-overs’ to play for my boss and owner of the company (it was a family-owned company) Bert Cutler. I expected him to love my selection and see how great Richie’s voice could be for GeoSafari. His response? “It’s terrible! You can’t even understand what he says.” and he walked away. We were stunned. My team members asked me what we were gonna do now. “****-him” I said. He’s just wrong. We’re using Richie.” That’s all I knew. Fortunately Bert’s son, Jay, the VP, knew of Richie and maybe he convinced his dad of his greatness. I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I would have quit if I couldn’t have used Richie. His voice was the glue that held GeoSafari together and also made it beautiful.

video

Look. I made many, many mistakes in putting together GeoSafari, It was a lot harder than I thought it would be and maybe I should have made the games simpler. I also initially put all the subjects on one CD-ROM (technically easy but a big marketing mistake) but maybe mistakes are the price you pay for trying to do something great. I certainly paid ‘em. My team Marcia Shank, Pat May, Denise Heyl, Erin Rosenthal, Krista Santacroce, David Liebowitz, Dennis Kerr and many  others were so committed to the product that they worked endless hours on it.

Finally we had working demos: GeoSafari Geography, History, Science and Animals. One thing I didn’t know but soon learned was that Educational Insights now wanted to become a public company and to do that successfully, you had to convince the Wall Street types that your company had a ‘future in the future’. So all of a sudden these well-dressed young business men were paraded into my little basement area to see our entry in the new digital world. One look at our rag-tag team and they were all skeptical. “Why do you think you can put out a product that can compete with Electronic Arts?” they all asked, in one way or another.

“Well, I don’t know if we can.” I answered, “let’s let you play GeoSafari and see what you think, OK?” “Oh and, by the way, we had Richie Havens record over 2000, names so GeoSafari will talk to the kids by their name. Lets try it, what’s your name?" The Wall Street guy answered “Ahmed”, as he turned around smirking to his cohorts, sure that that name wouldn’t be in our game. “Gee. I don’t know…..until I clicked on it and Richie’s beautiful voice rang out with “Ahmed, Is that you? Click on OK to use this name.” By this time his mouth was open and as we played the game and Richie would say things like “Ahmed, that’s three right in a row, keep it up” or “no, that’s not it but don’t worry, you still get two more tries.” We had ‘em. They all left impressed and the IPO was a success. And so was our project. We got great reviews and were even featured on ABC’s ‘Good Morning America”.

But things were changing. The 'world wide web' was just becoming popular and was replacing CD-ROM sales just by it’s scope and uniqueness. Also Educational Insights was sold to a bigger educational company, Learning Resources and that was pretty much the end of the line for me and for a digital version of GeoSafari.

One more thing I want to mention. GeoSafari CD-ROM was never only for kids. It’s most beautiful use was when families got together to play. It did more than teach you about Gila Monsters or who Emma Lazarus was. It brought families together.

And when I finally got to show Richie Havens the final product, after he played with it for awhile he said to me, and I quote, “I think this is the most important thing I’ve ever done.”


Well, It’s 25 years later and since our 1995 discs don’t play on current computers this was all ancient history and resumé material for me until just recently. I now have a 5 year-old running around my house and I realized I’d like to see if an obsolete computer could be ‘hacked’ so that she might try the GeoSafari CD-ROM experience. I was curious. My friend and engineer Pat May (who was part of the original design team) was able to find a vintage Mac and with some creative work-arounds install an obsolete operating system and boom! there was GeoSafari again. You’ll see Stephanie’s reaction in the blog. If nothing else comes of this I’ll have given her a valuable gift that has already made her (and her friends) smarter and will continue to do so in a most enjoyable way.

I’ve also drafted an e-mail to the heads of Educational Insights and Learning Resources to let them know about my blog and, while it’s only my opinion, I think a modern web version of their GeoSafari franchise would be both a wonderful educational experience and a profitable venture, far into our digital future. What do you think?
















Friday, March 10, 2017

SOLID LANDFILL

SOLID LANDFILL


It’s always hard to know where to start a story but this one has to start pretty far back before it get’s to it’s point, so just bear with me.



The year was 1971. I was 26, a Vista Volunteer assigned to the University of Hawaii’s Curriculum Development Center developing creative educational materials for the schools of Hawaii. Since I had a degree in design from Pratt Institute they assumed I knew what I was doing. They were wrong, but I was a fast learner and was soon put in charge of design. Since it was a serious project there were a lot of older PhD’s on the staff and what I want to say is that my ‘dress code’ was a little more on the casual side. I didn’t own shoes etc. They didn’t really care because not only did I love working there, I was also adding some nice touches to their work.  I just didn’t exactly ‘visually ‘ fit in. Anyway while I was walking down the hall one day I saw this other young ‘casual’ guy, coming the other way, bouncing and smiling and kind of jiving along. When we finally met a couple of days later we both had to confess that we both thought the other guy was on the janitorial staff. Turned out Rick Caalaman was an educator and developer for the Language Systems part of the project, which was the coolest place to be. We became good friends. 



In addition to my work at the Center, I had also been experimenting with the design of natural playgrounds where little kids who were handicapped could play, as complete sensory equals, with kids who were not handicapped. When the Curriculum Center’s project came to an end, I was offered a fellowship to The Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT to develop my playgrounds further. I headed east to Cambridge, Mass.  Rick took the wages he had saved and headed west to Asia and a trip around the world with no itinerary or schedule.

Nobody was more unhappy than me to be at MIT. I knew what an honor it was to be there (they were paying me!) but I had left beautiful Hawaii...paradise. And it was cold. And dirty. And dark. And concrete. And did I mention cold. I tried not to show it but I was heartbroken,
Clay Model
and besides, I was here because of my natural playgrounds, and the winter seemed to put a damper on any support from nature herself. But it was MIT and there were interesting things all around . I busied myself making a model of my playground in my studio and doing drawings but still I had to face facts and I didnʼt feel as if I fit in. I remember making this idiot deal with myself actually thinking ʻwell, either I leave or everybody else has to leaveʼ. 

My Studio

And then an amazing thing happened. Everybody left. What I didnʼt realize was that this was a school. The summer came. Everybody went home, somewhere else, or on vacation. I was there alone. I loved it.


I found out that Harvard University owned an arboretum close by. It was essentially a park and tree ʻmuseumʼ where all sorts of research went on. I told them about my playgrounds and they offered me some space and help to create some small living grass models. I wanted to put them in big pots so I could move them around but if anybody made pots like I wanted, I certainly wouldnʼt have been able to afford them. One day when I was driving to the Arboretum I passed this giant concrete pipe factory (NEPCO (New England Concrete Pipe Co), and seeing these giant culverts stacked up, I had an idea. I went in with my MIT/Playground story hoping that maybe they could cut their pipe for me. The manager said that they couldnʼt, but if I wanted to cast some big pots there, it would be ok with him. Like I said, this was a huge, huge place with giant mixing machines, molds, drying sheds, tractor-trailers being loaded by huge fork lifts, and me, on the side, making my pots. And loving it.






And when I was finished, they loaded them up for me, and I drove them over to the Arboretum where I started my project.







I was enjoying myself and making some nice progress as the summer came to an end and everyone began to trickle back to the Center at MIT. Because of all the work Iʼd accomplished I felt pretty good about everything now. The first order of MIT business was that the Center was going to have a traveling exhibit of all of our works which would go to several prestigious Science centers across the country. This was very exciting, until, for some reason, it was decided that my project, because the models were living, wouldnʼt be eligible for inclusion. I argued and explained and pleaded but there was no convincing them. They did say that I could come up with something else and it would go in the show. But I didnʼt have ʻsomething elseʼ. My playgrounds, and the logic behind them, was my reason for being at MIT in the first place.


ʻSomething elseʼ, I thought.


Now Iʼm not sure why I came up with what I did - even now. Somehow I decided to cast two



big special concrete discs, that when bolted together and rotated, would give the viewer the feeling that the center portion was moving back and forth thru the solid shape. Besides being hard to explain, and maybe even not possible to execute, it really had nothing to do with who I was. Nonetheless I began to sculpt a clay shape that I would cast in fibreglass and attach to my imagined mold. I also talked myself back into the concrete pipe factory.




At the plant, one of the guys, a machinist/welder named Joe Tavola took a liking to my project and helped me quite a bit. He reinforced and welded my fibreglass form into the mold. 




Then wrapped the mold with this removable steel band and added the pipes that would create the holes to bolt the two halves together.





Even though a lot of activity was going on, I still was apprehensive about everything I was doing. The morning I showed up for the first ʻpourʼ I got a wonderful visual surprise. Totally unplanned, the combination of the moldʼs unique curves cast a shadow that was the perfect beautiful Yin and Yang sign. 





Maybe this whole thing was gonna work out after all, I thought..... We created reinforcement, put it all together and poured it. twice. 






We rotated the halves 180 degrees to each other and bolted them together. I had designed a little motor and roller assembly that was supposed to make the whole thing rotate on its edge, but there wasnʼt time to even test it out because the truck was arriving today to head for Chicago and either it was ready to go or it was gonna be left behind. I hoped I could put the finishing touches on it, and get it to work, in Chicago, before the opening. We loaded it onto the truck. 



Even with the task of making it roll still hanging over me, I remember feeling relief that I had at least made the deadline. Sure. Next stop:



CHICAGO 





The Museum of Science and Industry was a very impressive place. Huge. I think they had a whole working coal mine inside and endless science and Industry exhibits. One room was devoted to a huge Foucault pendulum that swung across the gallery floor, successively knocking down pins and demonstrating the rotation of the earth. Anyway after a great tour we were escorted to the gallery where our show was to open tomorrow.

That weekend, the Chicago Sunday times ran this wonderful article about our show and the Center at MIT. 



And because the article was about the Center as a whole, a photo of one of my grass playgrounds was actually included


That was great, but I had work to do. The museum staff knew of my problem and had provided me with power and even built a kind of plastic tent around my work area so I wouldnʼt get everything dusty with my grinding. Everyone wished me well and went off to a nice dinner. I started to work, grinding away, and testing to see whether my sculpture would rotate continually. That was at 5pm. Soon, any workmen who were around setting up the show went home. A kid from some local cable-access channel was videotaping me for awhile, but by midnight he was gone too. I worked on but finally, at maybe 4 am, it still wasnʼt working. I was so tired. I gave up. 


Now, dusty and exhausted, I had to find my way out of this huge place. This task was made harder by the simple fact that everything except my little area was pitch black.I could wander around in here still lost until dawn. I remembered something Iʼd once read about getting out of a labyrinth by keeping your left hand on the wall and never taking it off. I set out. Slowly. After awhile I saw a dim light ahead and headed towards it. As I came around the corner I saw it was the Foucault Pendulum Room Iʼd seen earlier......but the pendulum was not now swinging. It was tied back against the wall with a big red ribbon and giant bow. I remember thinking right then that everything was a sham, the whole story about the earth rotating and everything else. But I had more immediate problems than the end of the world as I knew it. I still had to get out of here. I headed on with my left hand still on the wall. 


Finally the Museums lobby and doors came onto view and I staggered across the street to the hotel where I promptly fell asleep. 


The next day the show opened and everything went well except I, of course, my piece didn't rotate and I was totally disappointed. After the opening we all headed back to Cambridge.





After Chicago, the show was trucked to San Franciscoʼs Exploratorium, where, being a smaller museum, they had to ask the US Army to help them move my work. I tried again, in vain, to get it to rotate but I couldnʼt and it stayed unmoving during the show.





When I got back to MIT I got called into the office where the assistant Director, Friedrich St. Florian ( who years later would design the WWII Memorial in Washington DC) and I reviewed the situation. It was pretty clear my piece wasnʼt working as I had intended, and, he explained, the trucking company was charging by the mile and by the pound. Then he sheepishly slid a contract in front of me that would legally give them permission to bury my work somewhere in the San Francisco area. The term was SOLID LANDFILL. 


I think he thought that I would be offended or insulted by this proposal so he was relieved to see that I wasnʼt. Secretly I was delighted. There were a couple of reasons why. First, as part of the deal, without me even suggesting it, they said theyʼd take one of my real playground models to the last stop on our traveling exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art. And secondly, MIT had already agreed to have a show of my playgrounds in their Hayden Gallery. 


Besides figuratively and literally taking a load off my back, I kind of liked even the ʻSolid Landfillʼ concept; burying my work for the ages. It was ʻarcheologicalʼ. 



I signed. 

It was a year or so until the show moved to New Orleans, and it had been a good year for me. I had my show at the MIT gallery, I came up with a new idea at the Center that involved nothing heavier than a stick of chalk and I even got a part time job as the exhibits director of the Boston Childrenʼs Museum, a legendary place. 


Finally it was time for New Orleans and one of my living models and I headed south. This time the show went off without a hitch and was, for once, an enjoyable experience for me. The only problem I had was that I had never been to New Orleans in July before and it was unbearably hot and humid. Unbearably



The museum had secured me a room in the Latin Quarter, very beautiful and wonderfully historic, but all I wanted was a pool. I asked the Museum staff if they would mind moving me to anywhere that had a pool. I noticed from the tone of their response that they had gone to some trouble to get us these rooms, but nonetheless they obliged and sent me to a large, Las Vegas style motel. Big neon sign, a lounge with nightly entertainment and an immense pool. Heaven. 

The next morning, after a quick swim, I headed to the restaurant for breakfast. I was just about to pick up the menu when, looking across the dining room, I found myself staring right at Rick Caalaman. Neither of us could believe this. He had gone completely around the world and it was just chance that brought us together again at this motel in New Orleans. Great


And, as if that wasnʼt enough, that night Fats Domino was playing live at the lounge. Rick, me, my playground at the museum, New Orleans and Blueberry Hill.



Maybe it was all worth it.




EPILOG


By the way, eight years later I finally built one of my playgrounds; the PLAYCANO, at the Queens Botanical Gardens in New York City.