When I was a kid, my father had an atlas of the human body with clear plastic sheets that you could peel away to see what was under our skin. I spent hours turning those pages looking at organs, muscle tissue and blood vessels, the skeleton and all the rest.
Dad, if he were alive today, wouldn't need that set of see-through foils. Instead, he'd have a Mac or multimedia PC and a copy of "ADAM: The Inside Story," "BodyWorks" or "BodyVoyage." Or he could visit the Virtual Body Web site to learn about the brain, digestive system, heart and skeleton.
"ADAM: The Inside Story" from ADAM Software (http://www.adam.com/) doesn't quite live up to its claim of being "a medical school in your home," but it is a very good introduction to human anatomy.
The program is divided into three sections: Anatomy, The Family Scrapbook and Animations. When you enter the Anatomy section, you see a full frontal drawing of a man or a woman. By default, genitals and the female's breasts are covered with a fig leaf, but you can remove the leaf--unless the person who installed the program turned on the modesty feature.
There is an icon that lets you switch between male and female, as well as one that lets you change skin tones and features to reflect different ethnicities. This, of course, only applies to the skin level, because, as you peel away the skin, you see that underneath we really are pretty much the same. You can peel away the skin to reveal subcutaneous fat or go deeper through 100 layers of skin, fat, organs and bone.
The program, like the human body, has a lot of depth. You can rotate the view of the body to front, back and side and use a magnifying glass to zoom into any area. You can also view the body by system, such as cardiovascular, endocrine, digestive and immune.
When viewing a system, you can choose whether to display labels of each part. You can also print any view with or without labels. (The software doesn't let you copy images onto the clipboard to paste into another program unless you use a third-party screen-capture utility.) There are also a number of educational activities, including some neat puzzles where you have to unscramble individual components of certain body parts.
The Family Scrapbook isn't a place to store pictures of your own body parts, but rather an educational area where you watch a series of lighthearted multimedia presentations about the various body systems. It seems ideally suited for teenagers, though the program in general has features for just about any age group, from preschool on up.
In addition to quizzes, animations and other fun activities, the product also has a reference section with textual material about the body. The company's Web site has even more information that is available only to registered users of the product.
"BodyWorks 6.0" from Learning Co. (http://www.softkey.com) doesn't have as many activities or body views as ADAM, but it has more interactivity and is also a very good introduction to anatomy. The program is divided into three areas: Body Systems, Education and 3-D Models.
The Body Systems area lets you explore the body by selecting cardiovascular system, digestive system, lymphatic system and so on. If you click once on a system item, you get a general description of it. Click twice and you get to explore it visually.
BodyWorks displays more than just static pictures and animations. Its strength is its interactive features that let you use your mouse to manipulate organs and other body systems to look at them from any angle.
Click twice on the cardiovascular system and you see a picture of the human body with the heart and blood vessels. Click once on the heart and you get an article with hot links to related topics such as blood and blood pressure. Double click on the heart and you see an animated close-up of it pumping away. You can also rotate it to see it working from the back or side. The same process works with all body parts and systems.
In the education area, a character, Dr. Brain, provides a series of lectures about the various body systems while a picture of the system spins around on the screen. The doctor can be a bit monotonous, but she's very knowledgeable.
Although it's based on impressive research, I'm reluctant to recommend "BodyVoyage" from Time Warner Electronic Publishing for children--and even some squeamish adults. As the opening multimedia introduction explains, the product is based on research funded by the National Library of Medicine's Visible Human Project.
The body of Joseph Paul Jernigan, a 39-year-old convicted murderer, was "sliced, photographed and digitally converted to 120 billion bits of data" immediately following his execution. The illustrations on the CD-ROM are astounding and the scientific research is indeed impressive, but the details provided about Jernigan, his crime and his execution struck me as a bit macabre.
Once you get past the introduction, you can explore various parts of the body by watching narrated films, which, in a fair amount of detail, explain the inner workings of the body and its parts. A "body viewer" lets you zoom in to view the parts with skin, with the skin peeled away to reveal underlying muscles and organs, or just the skeleton. You can also look at a cross-section of the body as if you were able to take a scalpel and slice it from head to toe. Other views allow you to peer into the body as it dissolves, or "fly through" it from feet to head as it reveals the muscles and organs.
Frankly, I found this program to be largely a waste of time and money and, because of its ghoulish nature, I have no intention of sharing it with my kids.
Before buying any anatomical software, check out the resources on the Web. The Virtual Body Web page (http://www.columbia.net/vbody/) takes you on a very sophisticated multimedia tour of the body. The page is a bit slow and requires that you download Macromedia's Shockwave, but you'll not only find a lot of information, but a multimedia presentation that rivals what you can find on a CD-ROM.
Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com