Avi Greengart is the Research Director for Consumer Devices at Current Analysis (Mobile Phones, Connected Devices, and Digital Home). He also regularly writes for Slashgear, sporadically blogs at Home Theater View and Tweets far too often as @greengartAvi's expertise lies in understanding consumer electronics marketing, consumer behavior, and technology adoption patterns: where new technologies meet the mass market. 

 

 


Avi Greengart is an expert on the convergence of technology and entertainment: video, audio, computing, and wireless, how these are coming together, and what's likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life.

Column #38 (8/5/02)

Product Review: Visual Communicator

Serious Magic Makes Everyone a Broadcaster; Broadcasters Not Quitting Their Day Jobs Just Yet

Click Here for Correction and Update, Added 9/26/02

Having first seen Serious Magic's Visual Communicator software demonstrated at TechXNY/PCExpo (Column 34 (7/5/02) TechXNY/PCxpo Show Report), I had extremely high expectations.  To a large degree, they were met.  It certainly is an innovative, breakthrough product, and may spawn an entirely new category of software for creating short, TV-style video presentations.

A very pale -- see why below -- presentation by yours truly (1 minute, 2MB; Windows Media required)

It’s also somewhat like a high-end karaoke machine: use it for personal projects, and you’ll have great fun, and may even achieve results you’d be happy to share with family and friends.  At the same time, you’d never confuse a karaoke machine with a recording studio.  Similarly, using Visual Communicator for serious business projects may require more than the software provides – the final product may or may not be polished enough for business needs.  The product is so easy to use in part because it doesn’t give you a granular level of control.  Results also depend somewhat on the equipment you use, investing time tweaking the setup, and how much compression you apply to the final file. 

But, just like that karaoke machine, if you really want to look professional, you still need talent.  Scripting and organizing a good static Microsoft PowerPoint presentation requires no small amount of skill; to do the same for a presentation complete with text, video, and sound requires that much more.

However, despite its limitations, what Visual Communicator does for $99 is nothing short of amazing. 

You provide a computer and web cam (or digital camcorder), and it provides everything else, including green screen effects to make you look like you’re in a studio, on the beach, in cyberspace, etc..  Truly professional-looking graphics, such as bars with your name and title on them, can be overlaid on top of streaming video, and you can edit the captions on the fly.  The graphics and video can transition in dozens of ways.  Sound, music, and effects – from the included library – can be tied to segments or specific effects.  And a scrolling teleprompter interface makes it easy to create and execute scripts, making the whole process fun and appealing.

Installation and Setup

Since Serious Magic was kind enough to include an actual printed user manual (they call it a “Personal Broadcasting Handbook”), I gave it a quick glance before getting started.  Not only are printed manuals rare, this one is written in colloquial English.  A lot of effort clearly went into this, and it shows.

First, I installed an Intel PC Camera (it’s been discontinued, but is one of the better web cams for low light situations).  On Windows XP Pro, this was a simple matter of plugging it in to an available USB port, poof! instant recognition (have I mentioned that I love XP?).  Next, I installed Visual Communicator, registered online, received a password, downloaded the latest patch (version 1.0.1103), and installed it.  So far, so good.

Then, was alerted that I needed to change my display settings to small fonts.  I did, and it still wouldn’t run, but the notice suggested I reboot.  Fair enough.  After the reboot I still had no luck getting Visual Communicator to run, so I went back and changed the DPI settings as well (they must be related to font size, I supposed).  Success!  The fonts on my monitor are now so small I can barely see them without serious eyestrain, but Visual Communicator runs.

Getting good audio and video from your web cam and microphone is a matter of trial and error.  You’ll get best results if you suspend your camera from the top of your monitor – not easy to do with LCD monitors or notebooks.  And despite extensive tweaking, I was never fully satisfied with the audio from the lavaliere mic (included in the Visual Communicator Plus package).  I could never get my voiceovers to approach the clarity of the sound clips, effects, and music they got mixed with.  There’s one other problem as well - I’ve done conference calls and online presentations in the past, and I’m happy with my voice and appearance.  But when using the included personalities as part of a program, keep in mind that you’re inviting a direct comparison between on camera professionals and, well, you.  Unless you have training, makeup, and wardrobe help, you may not like the contrast.  (And using a web cam – which generally makes me look washed out – didn’t help things along any.)

Performance

Scripting your presentation is easy and elegant.

Reading smoothly from a teleprompter takes practice.  Fortunately, Visual Communicator allows you to practice until you get it perfect.  However, you can’t cut and paste different parts of your performance unless you break it up into small files from the outset.  A simple utility that allows you to create a shell to cue up multiple short video files would be nice to have for creating and distributing larger shows.

Inserting different effects is easy and elegant.  You are given a fairly large library of graphics and effects to choose from, so you can really go overboard here.  As the product supports nearly every major graphic file standard, you can add custom backgrounds and overlays quite easily.  Serious Magic was much less generous in providing background music files, but here too, if you have access to sound effects or stock music discs, you can pull what you need from there.

Dealing with video and music cues is easy, at the expense of control.  If you’ve edited videos before and expect timelines to see where things stop and start, you won’t get that here.  There’s basically no precision – you nudge elements up or down with your mouse, and then rehearse to see if the timing is better.

The “slide” portions of Visual Communicator are editable, but don’t provide the ease or flexibility of PowerPoint.  Editing them is not terribly intuitive, either.  (You can always create your slides in PowerPoint, export them as a graphic, and import the graphic, but a simple import tool would be a welcome addition.)  Therefore, one obvious use - creating automated audio-annotated PowerPoint presentations - is less than perfectly served by Visual Communicator.  In fact, there are several add-on utilities for PowerPoint that accomplish that goal.  However, the scrolling teleprompter interface would be a great addition, and I will be shocked - shocked! - if Microsoft doesn't "borrow" the concept for a future release of PowerPoint. 

Graphics and virtual sets – with real-time shadows and reflections – is quite impressive.  Serious Magic points out that only 40 TV stations in the U.S. have this capability!  That's great, but I never did get the green screen effects to work seamlessly.  I've seen presentations created in Visual Communicator that have this working as advertised, so I'm sure with a bit more tweaking, or perhaps a different physical setup, I could achieve green screen nirvana.  Or perhaps not - I invested four hours on lighting, hanging, and adjusting the stuff before giving up.  Your mileage may vary.

Green screen also affected the color balance - I could either look alien and washed out with some green screen effect, or appear fully human with my room in the background.  For the video review, I chose to look pale so you, dear reader, can see what I was going for.  The sacrifices I make in name of science...

Serious Horsepower Required

Serious Magic recommends machines with Pentium III 800Mhz or better, and at least 128 MB of RAM, but you should really consider that a bare minimum, otherwise you won't be able to see all the effects in real time as you record them.  Visual Communicator ran smoothly on my 1.8 Ghz Pentium 4 with 512MB RAM and an nVidia Geoforce3 video card, but even so, after you finish recording a show, compressing and saving it to disk eats up a lot of processing cycles.  If you don’t have a fast PC, you may want to go for coffee while it compresses and saves a completed show (saving works in progress – without the video – is instantaneous).  File sizes for reasonable quality are quite large: mine weighed in at 2MB/minute.  Going smaller meant so much compression that the whole enterprise was worthless.  As you might imagine, saving files completely uncompressed for archiving purposes eats up enormous quantities of disk space.

Even so, Visual Communicator videos have limited resolution - typically, 320 x 240, although 640x480 is possible, and 720 x 480 using a digital camcorder is in beta.  In order to deal with files that large, you'll not only need a huge hard drive, you will also be limiting the way you can distribute your work.  Visual Communicator can save to MPEG and most Microsoft video file formats; Real Networks and Apple Quicktime are not supported.  The files can then be distributed on corporate networks, streamed over the web (if the files are small enough), or burned to a CD-R or DVD-R.

Conclusions

As a version 1.0 product, Visual Communicator is remarkably complete.  However, some rough edges remain, and I look forward to seeing improvements over time.  The main strength of the product – its “live,” no-edit, teleprompter interface – is also a weakness.  Make a single mistake in your three minute program?  Start over.  There’s simply no way to edit anything after you hit “record.”  Other problems: users with high resolution monitors (and nearly all LCD monitors) will need to change their settings to small fonts, which may make daily use of the computer a pain in the neck (and the eyes).  A good quantity of starter video material is included, but audio selections are sparse.  I also experienced an unexplained software crash; while certainly not unprecedented in the world of PC software, there’s no auto-save, so I had to start the project over from scratch.

Like any tool, achieving good results requires talent and practice.  I have seen excellent presentations created by professionals using PowerPoint.  However, the stuff most folks create with PowerPoint is terrible – an offensive mix of fonts, busy layout, excessive text, redundant slides, and poor use of transitions and animation.  The possibilities for abuse with Visual Communicator are compounded.  Of course, this isn't anything new: when desktop publishing was introduced on the Macintosh, Font Abuse was rampant.  When (all electronic, not overhead transparencies) PowerPoint presentations were new , Transition Abuse was rampant.  With Visual Communicator, we could see some serious Effects Abuse.  And if we do, we'll know that we have a new communications tool, not just a karaoke machine.

-avi

Corrections and Update, 9/26/02

In Column 38 (8/5/02) Product Review: Visual Communicator, I noted that there were several shortcomings to the initial version of the software, including poor audio quality and the inability to do any editing whatsoever after recording.  Serious Magic has proven to be quite responsive.  First, the CEO contacted me to assure me that the Serious Magic-supplied microphone must be defective (he promised a replacement that still hasn't arrived), and indicated that improvements in the program would be released shortly.  I tested another microphone I had on hand and confirmed that the poor audio quality was due to the mic, not the program.

Serious Image has kept their word on product improvements as well.  They recently posted updates to Visual Communicator; most changes are minor, plus a few significant upgrades:

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Visual Communicator now has support for non-destructive changes even after you record your video.  The green screen background, effects, color adjustments, volume, and other properties can be changed and immediately reviewed or published without having to record the whole show again from scratch.  This isn't as good as being able to splice the video itself, but goes a long way towards eliminating the program's initial - extremely frustrating - inflexibility.  Bravo!

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As indicated as planned in the review, they have expanded their output to support 640x480 AVIs.  They also added Digital Video output, and a new advanced-mode allowing selection of publishing codecs.

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You can improve the sound even if you have a defective microphone - you can now view and adjust the recorded microphone level while Reviewing a show, and fine tune the level prior to publishing.  In addition, the Audio Input panel was enhanced.  It now provides separate adjustments for the hardware input volume and a new Digital Boost slider which was added to increase the volume range for sound cards with low Mic input levels.

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