Sunday, August 28, 2011

Star Trek Omnipedia - Nothing A True Fan Does Not Already Have In Their Head!

The Good: Interesting pictures, Some good write-ups, Cool videos
The Bad: Voice activation seldom works, Not current, Not followed-through on
The Basics: The first edition Star Trek Omnipedia was a PC-based multimedia encyclopedia featuring articles, photos and a few videos that quickly became obsolete.

You know the old phrase "Time flies when you're having fun" (or "Time dies when you're fearing spuds" for newer, hipper people)? It seems like just yesterday that is was 1996. RAM was ridiculously expensive (remember paying $25.00/MB?!), the internet took forever to load with all its images and the coolest CD-ROM I got was the Star Trek Omnipedia. Intended for use on the (at the time new) Windows 95 or Windows NT, this PC-based CD-Rom was going to be all the rage. Now, it sits on my shelf, gathering dust and it's easy to see why. Released in late 1995, this tool which tried to sell itself as being indispensable to Star Trek fans everywhere failed.

The Star Trek Omnipedia was a simple enough concept. Simon and Schuster, publishers of the Star Trek Encyclopedia (reviewed here!) and the Star Trek Chronology, decided to combine the two in a single, interactive experience. The Star Trek Omnipedia is intended as a reference tool for fans of the Star Trek universe. It is designed to have the same interface as the Star Trek: The Next Generation U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701-D's library computer.

As such, the CD-ROM employs the vocal talents of Majel Barrett as the voice of the ship's computer. The ship's computer talks to the user and tells the user such useful things as "loading. . .," "main menu," "episode list," and the title of the specific article the user chooses. This is a nice touch that makes the program seem like it is a real part of the Star Trek universe to the fans.

Information can be accessed several different ways. One of the simplest ways to get information is to use the alphabetical listing of everything in the database. This gives a thorough list of tens of thousands of articles on characters, planets, episodes, technology and alien races all by the first letter of their name. This makes the Star Trek Omnipedia seem most like an encyclopedia and reference tool than any of the other functions. Like an encyclopedia, it requires the user to have some basic idea of what they are looking for and at the very least, the ability to read and recognize the topic for what it is when they find it.

There is a search engine, which allows users to search the contents of the Omnipedia. This is a fairly clunky search engine and my experience with it truly was hit-or-miss. I often ended up plodding through the sliding scroll of alphabet soup to get what I wanted when I wanted it. At least half the time, when I used the exact search term that was listed in the Omnipedia database, it came up with a different article.

Articles on episodes (basically plot summaries) are available organized by alphabetical order, series order, or chronological order for the franchise. Because the Omnipedia was released in 1995, it has information that goes up to and including only Season 3 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and preliminary information on Star Trek: Voyager with its first season. As far as the films go, it only has information up to and including Star Trek: Generations.

The articles in the Omnipedia are generally well-written if a little vague on some counts. Usually episodes are cited for relevant information pertaining to characters and planets. Most articles have a picture (several that are not available elsewhere), about a hundred have video clips, and all have text pretty much gleaned from the text Star Trek Encyclopedia. Some of the lesser characters are limited to articles that would be considered stubs by a wiki standard with just the character and actor names and the episode they appeared in. The main characters are well-represented and the episode summaries are sufficient to jog the memory of most viewers and often contain one or two of the lesser details that might be omitted by other sources.

The only truly unique aspect of the Star Trek Omnipedia is a series of articles that try to tie aspects of the franchise together concisely. The "Topics" are fully-narrated presentations on: James T. Kirk, Jean-Luc Picard, The History of the Enterprise, The History of the Future, and a production history of Star Trek. The Topics are narrated by Mark Lenard and they are interesting little multimedia presentations that try to tie the disparate elements of the franchise into one concise and entertaining grid. For the most part, it succeeds.

So, why the low rating?

The Star Trek Omnipedia is a wonderful resource for those fans of Star Trek dedicated enough to know things like character and episode names, but not so zealous that they can quote most of the episodes. I can see how this would be a wonderful reference tool for fans who are writing fan-fiction or new episodes of the series. Even the chronology aspect is useful (see note below), but the die-hard fans simply don't need this. It's in our heads. Seriously. The geeks who this was marketed towards know this stuff backwards and forwards and the Omnipedia becomes useful solely to settle bets fast when one doesn't want to watch a whole episode.

This leads to the next problem with it. The interface is clunky. Those who are more casual fans who are looking for serious information will find it difficult to find things on here. Moreover, fans who don't know episode titles will be lost as there is no "The one where Captain Kirk shoot that monster" type option for the vague and ill-informed. Or just not seriously geeky enough.

The key selling point that was supposed to entice geeks like me into the Omnipedia was a voice-activated interface. This RAM-intensive and hard drive space eating (well, it did when hard drives were smaller, anyway. . .) function requires training from the user and then seldom worked after that after all. The average user will get the package, be excited about it and bring a friend over to load the thing up. They'll do the training, discover it doesn't work and the friend will want to know something and the primary user will be too irked or disappointed to relay the message to the computer.

Since loading this up on my much newer computer, the voice-recognition software works slightly better; the computer recognizes my requests approximately 30% of the time as opposed to 10% when the product was first released and it finds the correct article about 40% of the time after that as opposed to about 20% originally. The graphics look much better on my newer monitor (reviewed here!), probably because they were created from the original preview trailers and screenshots. But the voice recognition software was largely a dud and it remains that way today.

This leads to the other two problems with the Omnipedia. First, it was updated twice, but in its first incarnation, it quickly became obsolete. Star Trek fans want current information and waiting for updates to include current seasons of the series and expanded articles did not meet the needs of most users.

And that's why it's not getting updated again. Star Trek fans tend to be technologically savvy and highly literate. As a result, they tend to have no problem thumbing through the textbook edition of the Star Trek Encyclopedia as opposed to needing the faux-novelty of the digital Star Trek Omnipedia. The book is less clunky and equally informative (considering most of the articles are identical in content).

For those who want the most current information, the Omnipedia was essentially superseded by the on-line library at The same information is available there with all the latest information, some additional production resources like more extensive guest star listings and it does not require any additional software, so it doesn't take up space on one's hard drive.

And when we're away from our internet connection and need to settle a bet, oftentimes, it's more fun for us to pull our DVDs off the shelf and bring up the relevant material. Between the internet's ease of access to information and DVD's ease of accessing source material (MUCH easier than plodding through VHS tapes!), the Star Trek Omnipedia is outdated, outclassed and otherwise obsolete.

But hey, if you want to waste some serious time trying to play voice recognition games with an encyclopedia, be my guest!


For other software reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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