Live the Bible with iLumina Gold
A Look at the Latest Bible Software for Mac OS X.
by David Lang (Posted: 2/20/04)
What if You Could Step Back in Time?
What if you could step back in time to witness the amazing events recorded in the Bible? What would it be like to see Goliath shouting threats from across the valley? Or to see the baby Jesus lying in a manger? What would it be like to stand before Herod's awe-inspiring temple and to hear Jesus say that not one stone of it would be left on another? With iLumina, the innovative new Bible program developed by Visual Book Productions and published by Tyndale, you can do all of those things and more.
iLumina is one of those programs which is difficult to describe, because it doesn't quite fit into any of the existing categories. It's Bible software, but it's so different from most other Bible programs that there is surprisingly little overlap. With all its multimedia elements and educational emphasis, it could easily be classified as "edutainment", but somehow, that label doesn't quite do iLumina justice. Basically, iLumina is so unique it deserves its own category, and if I were a little smarter, I'd coin a really cool-sounding name for it. Since I'm not that smart, I'll just do my best to describe what iLumina can do.
But first, the obligatory disclaimer: Until now, I have always avoided writing reviews of Bible software programs because I actually help to develop a Bible program called Accordance, and it would be unfair of me to review a competing product. So why am I making an exception in the case of iLumina? Precisely because iLumina is so unique. I'll deal with the extent to which iLumina competes with other Bible programs such as Accordance toward the end of this review, and I'll do my best to give a fair assessment of iLumina's capabilities throughout. Ultimately, you'll have to judge whether or not you think I've given a fair review, but at least you're now aware of any biases I might have.
I've said that iLumina is unique, in a class by itself, but that's not just my assessment. It's one of the first things I was told by Nelson Saba, the president of Visual Book Productions. Visual Book Productions happens to be based here in my hometown of Orlando, and they were kind enough to give me, my wife, and my two boys a tour of their studio. Mr. Saba began by explaining the original vision behind iLumina, and the direction they see the software taking in the future.
Nelson Saba, President of Visual Book Productions, explains his vision for iLumina
It quickly became apparent that the developers of iLumina are "thinking different" about what Bible software should be. Mr. Saba explained that all other Bible programs, whatever their distinctive features, basically present the user with a wealth of material for study; but unless the user already knows what to do with all that material, it is unlikely to help him understand the Bible any better. Add to that the expense of purchasing these large libraries of Bible texts, commentaries, dictionaries, and related study aids and you end up with a situation where most people spend more money than they should to get lots of stuff they'll never use. Finally, Mr. Saba pointed out that people today are more likely to respond to visual, multimedia presentations of the Bible than they are to purely text-based approaches. The folks at Visual Book therefore decided to develop a Bible study program which would be accessible to anyone, reasonably priced, and which would use the latest technological innovations to help make the Bible come alive for people.
The danger of "thinking different" is that some people will fail to catch the vision. This was apparently the case when Mr. Saba began approaching publishers about the possibility of bringing iLumina to market. As we'll see, the technology behind iLumina is incredibly expensive. At the same time, Mr. Saba wanted to make iLumina relatively inexpensive. To be willing to invest in the development of such a product, a publisher would need to have faith that iLumina would sell in volumes far beyond those which any previous Bible program had achieved. I have no idea how many publishers chose not to back the development of iLumina, but ultimately Tyndale did. Interestingly, the marriage between Visual Book Productions and Tyndale has turned out to be a particularly suitable match, as we'll see a little later.
The iLumina Interface
The iLumina software itself contains six distinct components: The Bible, an Encyclopedia, a Timeline, the Media Center, Extras, and My Study Center.
Each component offers you access to different kinds of content, yet there is a high degree of integration among the various components. I'll explain how this works in a moment, but first let's look at what each component consists of:
The Bible component of iLumina includes the text of the Bible in two versions: Tyndale's own New Living Translation and the King James. These can be viewed individually or in parallel columns. The Bible component also includes a number of passage-related reference materials (which iLumina calls "Bible companions"), such as basic commentaries, study notes, devotional resources, etc. These are presented, along with appropriate media elements, to the left of the Biblical text.
As far as I could tell, the Bible text can only be viewed one chapter at a time. So, for example, there is no way to view Genesis 1:26-2:4 all at once. Another minor complaint is that there seems to be no way to customize the appearance of the Bible text, such as changing the font or choosing to hide the verse references. The font size, however, can be increased or decreased simply by clicking the text size buttons.
The Encyclopedia component provides a common interface for what appear to be several distinct reference works: A Bible Dictionary, a Dictionary of Theological Terms, a Dictionary of Christian History, Life Application Articles, Hymns and Hymn Stories, and more. One can browse or search the complete list of articles from all of these works, or various subsets of articles. In general, I found the quality of the articles I looked at to be high, but I was frustrated at how the common interface tended to blur the distinctions between these various works. For example, a search for "worship" turned up five different articles, each of which presumably came from a different one of the included reference works, but I found it impossible to tell which article came from which work. This left me feeling like I had no easy way to know the theological perspective from which each article was written. In a few articles, a source was cited, and this helped a lot. I'd just like to see it done for every article, or at the very least, have some way to tell which reference work an article comes from.
Mr. Saba did tell me where the bulk of the encyclopedia material comes from, and the story is a prime example of how Tyndale turned out to be an ideal partner for Visual Book Productions. Apparently, the founder of Tyndale had long ago developed a Bible encyclopedia aimed at a lay audience, but the encyclopedia was never published because Tyndale could never find the right venue for it. iLumina provided a cost-effective way to bring this material to the very audience it was originally intended for, and the long-dormant encyclopedia provided iLumina with valuable content.
The Time Travel component of iLumina is an attractively laid-out timeline with links to encyclopedia articles and the occasional animation or illustration. The timeline itself is not particularly comprehensive, but one can get a great deal of information about the people and events which it highlights.
Nelson Saba did show me a project Visual Book Productions is working on which will, I believe, make the Time Travel component of iLumina much more exciting. Drawn across a long whiteboard in their studio was a timeline extending from the beginning of time to today, and taped along this timeline were small mockups showing the extent of various empires and geopolitical divisions at each point in time.
Apparently a future version of iLumina will be able to show the ebb and flow of these peoples and nations over time. Imagine being able to look at the time of David and see that the Assyrian, Egyptian, and Hittite empires were all receding or breaking up, creating a power vacuum which the king of Israel was able to exploit. Or to look at the time of Abraham and see the great migrations of which his sojourn was a part. I have no idea how they plan to implement this feature, but if their past accomplishments are any indication of future success, it promises to be really cool.
The Media Center component is without a doubt at the heart of what makes iLumina unique. As we've seen, the various media elements which iLumina provides are all integrated with the other components. If you're reading about Christ's resurrection in the Bible component, you are presented with relevant animations, photographs, virtual tours, etc. The same is true when you're reading certain articles in the Encyclopedia component, or following certain links in the Time Travel component. But if you want to explore the various media elements directly, the Media Center is the place to go.
Trying to tell you about all the innovative, entertaining, and educational things you'll find in the Media Center is a bit like trying to thank everybody you need to thank in an Oscar acceptance speech! In other words, I just know there's going to be something really important that I forget to mention or fail to describe adequately. Oh well, I'll just have to give it my best shot!
The animations are probably the one thing iLumina is most famous for. You can watch computer animations of key events in the lives of Moses, David, and Jesus, and the narration and dialogue are straight out of the New Living Translation of the Bible. Having heard so much about the animations, I was actually suprised at how few Bible stories were actually depicted in this way. There is no Daniel in the Lions' Den, no Jonah and the Whale (or Fish), no Noah's ark. Of course, I quickly realized how silly I was being. When you consider the time, planning, and expense involved in creating these little video clips, not to mention the amount of disc space required to store them, it's amazing how many Bible stories have been animated.
Even more amazing are the animations which you don't expect, but which are really far more illustrative than a depiction of Daniel or Noah ever could be. You know those long sections of Exodus and Leviticus which describe the construction of the tabernacle and the clothing and activities of the priests? Those are animated, and watching these animations helps to make some of the dryest sections of the Bible absolutely come alive! In my opinion, the folks at Visual Book Productions deserve no small amount of praise for choosing to concentrate their efforts where they would be of real educational benefit as opposed to mere entertainment value.
By the way, seeing how the animations were produced was easily the most interesting part of our tour. Nelson Saba showed us the studio where they do the motion capture which forms the framework for all the animated characters, and the recording studio where they record all the narration and dialogue. They also do motion capture of the actors' facial expressions as they're speaking, adding a level of realism which I think is best seen in the animation of David and Goliath. Mr. Saba and his wife then showed us how the animations go through various stages from hand-drawn storyboard frames to rough 3D modeling to the actual motion-capture and final rendering. While the quality of the animations in iLumina is high, it was breathtaking to see the quality of the original, uncompressed animations.
As cool as the animations are, they're really just the tip of the multimedia iceberg. You can also choose to view photos of various Biblical locations, objects, and artifacts. An Atlas section lets you select from a series of static 2D maps. Points in Time are 3D depictions of Biblical scenes such as the Last Supper or the Burning Bush. Using a standard QuickTime VR interface, you are actually placed inside these scenes and can look around them in 360 degrees. Virtual Tours take this concept one step further, enabling you to explore 3D re-creations of the Hebrew Tabernacle, Herod's Temple in Jerusalem, First-Century Nazareth and Capernaum, etc. These 3D landscapes are particularly engaging, and each one is accompanied by a small map which gives you an overview of where you are and which direction you're looking. As you drag your cursor over various objects or locations in these 3D worlds, you are given brief explanations of what they are and why they're important. The whole thing is extremely well done.
The pièce de résistance of iLumina's multimedia capabilities are the Guided Tours, which bring the various animations, photographs, Points in Time, and Virtual Tours together into an immersive educational experience. Each Guided Tour focuses on a particular period or episode in the life of Christ, such as Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, his childhood in Nazareth, his ministry years in Galilee, and his death and resurrection in Jerusalem. When you select a guided tour, you are typically presented with a Virtual Tour to explore and an associated video which you can play. The videos are excellent, featuring various speakers explaining the historical and cultural background of the events in question and, in some cases, how these events relate to our own need for salvation. The Virtual Tours often include links to various points in time, so you can view a 3D reconstruction of how a place might have looked in Jesus' day, and then watch it morph into a QuickTime VR of the way it looks today. You can easily spend hours working your way through the Guided Tours, and you'll learn a tremendous amount as you do.
All in all, the Media Center is where iLumina really shinesnot just because it features some glitzy visual effects, but because it's packed with substantive and highly innovative ways to teach the Bible.
The Extras component of iLumina basically just contains information about iLumina itself, with links to the iLumina web-site.
My Study Center
The sixth and final component of iLumina is called My Study Center, and is designed to serve as a kind of central gathering point for the information contained in iLumina. You can perform searches of all or a portion of iLumina's text and multimedia resources, sift through the results, copy text, take snapshots of media elements, and then export your study for inclusion in a document or presentation. The export process saves each snapshot as a jpeg and creates a rich text file containing any text you've copied. It struck me as a reasonably useful way to gather information, but it didn't strike me as something I would personally use very much.
Price and Suitability
iLumina comes in two packages and price points: iLumina Gold, the product I'm reviewing here, costs $89.95 and includes all the animations and features I've described. A Basic package is available for $49.95, but it lacks a great many animations, virtual tours, and reference works, not to mention the interactice guided tours which I believe to be one of iLumina's most valuable features. You can find a chart listing the contents of the Basic and Gold packages here. The chart says that only the Gold package is Mac-compatible, but I found this to be incorrect. I was able to install the Basic package on a G3 PowerBook and a G4 iMac, and in both cases, it ran just fine. So if you absolutely can't afford iLumina Gold, the Basic package is available to you as an option. Still, you get so much more with iLumina Gold, I would strongly recommend buying it rather than the Basic package.
What if you already own Bible software such as Accordance or Online Bible? Should you consider getting iLumina? Absolutely, yes. Even if you never use the Bible study component of iLumina Gold, its many educational and multimedia elements are worth every penny of its ninety dollar price tag, and would serve as a wonderful complement to a more traditional Bible study program.
Now for the tough question. If you only have ninety dollars to spend on Bible software, should you buy iLumina or Accordance? You'll recall from the disclaimer at the beginning of this review that I help to develop Accordance, so this is a particularly tough question for me.
My answer? It depends. If you're wanting to do much more than basic Bible reading and the occasional word search, you'll soon find the Bible study component of iLumina very limiting. iLumina does support some basic wildcard and Boolean searches, but the search results window only appears to display twenty-five verses at a time, making it cumbersome to view every occurrence of a common word. There are a whole host of things you can do with other Bible study programs that iLumina does not even attempt to do, and if those features are important to you, you'll need to look for them elsewhere.
But why should we fault the developers of iLumina for "thinking different," and aiming their software at a segment of the market which no other software developer (including my company) was adequately serving? Remember that iLumina was designed for the person who does not know a great deal about how to study the Bible, but who just wants to understand what the Bible teaches and how it applies to his life. Such people don't need a dozen different commentaries and the ability to perform proximity searches. They need precisely what iLumina provides: some basic Bible study tools and lots of engaging educational material. If that's where you are, and you've only got ninety dollars to spend on Bible software, I would definitely recommend buying iLumina rather than Accordance.
Let me also say that while this is iLumina's target audience, it would be a mistake to conclude that iLumina is not for more knowledgeable students of the Bible. iLumina has a wealth of information to mine, and everywhere I turned I found myself learning something new. My only point here is that people wanting to do more indepth Bible study should consider using iLumina as a supplement to some other Bible study program, rather than using iLumina by itself.
By "thinking different," the folks at Visual Book Productions have succeeded in creating one of the most innovative Bible Study programs ever produced, and I'm thankful they had the good sense to bring iLumina to the Mac. I would highly recommend iLumina to any Mac user interested in Bible software, and I hope that Mac users will become a sizable and enthusiastic part of iLumina's installed base. What the developers of iLumina have accomplished so far has been truly remarkable, and I'm excited to see what they dream up next to help us "live the Bible" like never before.