Does multimedia science work?


That would be a short blog post - but things are a little more complicated. There is no doubt that some multimedia presentations of science work. A great example is Marcus Chown's Solar System app for the iPad. I confess I haven't played with it yet (as soon as iPads come back in stock, I will be reviewing it), but by all accounts it is superb, really making use of the multimedia environment. But elsewhere I have more mixed feelings.

Some new technology gurus insist that we all should be moving to video. 'Why aren't all authors doing videos to promote their material?' they cry, or 'Why do you still bother with print at all?' I don't know if it's just me, but I have a very low tolerance of videos. I can watch a video online for maybe two minutes - beyond that, I can't be bothered. I don't understand why exactly. I'm quite happy to sit through a one hour documentary or a two hour movie on the TV, but stick me in front of an online video and I want to be moving on. It has to be brilliant to grab my attention - and the fact is most of these videos aren't. The worst thing is, with words I can scan through and get a jist very quickly - it's just not possible with a video where you have to plod through at a fixed pace. Compared with text they are boringly linear.

It's the same with audio. Unless I'm in the car, when it's a godsend, I can't be bothered to listen to anything for more than a couple of minutes. Even the excellent RSC podcasts on elements and compounds. I really struggle to listen to a whole five minutes. I know quite a few people do, so perhaps it's just my pathetic attention span. Apparently those podcasts are downloaded at a rate of around 50,000 a month. Yet this doesn't prove, of course, that everyone listens end to end. Again it's that relentless linearity that does for me. I like to be able to scan, to jump around. I want to be in control.

The good news is that apps like Solar System do give this control back to the multimedia viewer. But the bad news is these are always likely to be high budget productions. The great thing about text is anyone can do it at minimal cost. The same in theory goes for podcasts and videos, but to my mind less effectively. Before anyone trumpets the end of print, let's celebrate its flexibility and ease of production.

If you are the sort of person who can cope with video, here's one I managed to watch for at least 4 minutes. It shows some examples of what can be done with a top end multimedia book - and it's very impressive.