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PowerPoint Powerups

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I regularly use Microsoft’s PowerPoint, and it’s safe to say that a large segment of instructors also use PowerPoint (or if they’re Apple diehards, Keynote). By now all of us are aware of the “death by Powerpoint” effect. This phenomenon, characterized by endless slides consisting of endless text bullets that we dutifully read to our assembled audience, is notorious to the point that several books have been written on how to avoid it. Not only does it produce presentations that are dull and boring, but I believe that it insults the intelligence of the audience as well.

One of the recommended cures for this malady is to use fewer bullets (one or two per slide). Many of us these days use screen captures to illustrate a point, since so many of the images on which we rely actually come from websites, and in many cases that’s the only place they’re available. Back in the day we captioned and annotated graphics using a draw or paint program to add arrows and captions.

On the Macintosh, Snapz Pro (www.ambrosiasw.com) is a longtime favorite for capturing everything from simple pictures to entire movies with sound as they play. I’ll admit that I am far less familiar with equivalents on the PC with the exception of Camtasia Pro (www.camtasia.com), which is so full-featured as to rate its own write up, perhaps in a future column.

During the past couple of years I’ve found an entire new collection of graphic and presentation tools that have illustrated my lectures and (I believe) have made them far more compelling. These days we can annotate and caption from within the same program with which we captured the image in the first place. For example, Voila from Global Delight Software (www.globaldelight.com) facilitates desktop screen captures, and also takes captures directly from a webcam. This $40 program not only captures a screen or a selection within a screen, but also provides annotation tools in color, including text, arrows, lines, callout balloons, spray paint, and more. Many other tools usually only found in Photoshop-grade graphics programs are also included, like crop and skew. In addition, you can upload your annotated screen capture to either your Flickr account or to a folder on your FTP site with a single click.

Skitch (www.skitch.com) takes a similar approach to screen capture, using F5 for a selection and F6 for an entire screen. The tools are similar, although a bit more cartoony than those in Voila. The main difference is that Skitch uploads your finished image to its website, where you select the degree of sharing you’re comfortable with. Choices range from totally public to totally private, with several choices in between. Skitch is currently free, although the company has been making noises about charging a monthly fee for image storage. While that makes some sense given the amount of storage one can eat up with screen captures, the prospect of having to pay a monthly fee to utilize its upload abilities would make it less attractive, should that come to pass. Nevertheless, the software program is easy to use and gives good results, and one could always just save images to a local hard drive.

On the movie side of things, it seems that the old standby Snapz Pro has been upstaged by several new programs that do quite a bit more. iShowU (www.shinywhitebox.com) has the ability to record and save video files in more than Snapz’ default QuickTime .mov format. It comes with useful presets for YouTube and Apple’s Final Cut Pro, as well as regular video in both U.S. NTSC and European PAL formats, with resolutions up to 1080 pixels. It also upstages Snapz Pro with the ability to simultaneously record from both the screen and from any USB or built-in web cam. More recently, iShowU was joined by a sibling product, iShowU HD. As the name implies, the HD version will capture up to 1920x1080 at 60 frames, at the expense of a substantially lower framerate on my MacBook Pro laptop. One would want a MacPro with multiple dual core processors to get the most from this program.

The latest salvo to be fired in this war of movie-format screen captures comes from Telestream (www.telestream.net) in the form of the $99 ScreenFlow software. What ScreenFlow lacks in sizes and formats for capture it more than makes up for in annotations. Unlike the other movie capture programs mentioned, ScreenFlow is actually a workmanlike video editor with effects that allow the camera to zoom in and out on a particular area of the screen in post production. So once a movie has been captured, the video and audio can be edited and conformed, and specific actions on the screen that are otherwise difficult to see can be brought into sharp focus via zooming. Other video processes include the ability to flip and rotate the screen image to create snazzy transitions, and text annotations. The only downside to ScreenFlow is that these effects keep your video in a proprietary format until you’ve finished, whereupon you can export the video in formats for iPhone, YouTube, or high-definition playback.

Last but not least is a specialized program for creating time lines. From the oddly-named Bee Docs (www.beedocs.com) comes TimeLine 3D, whose sole purpose is to help create interesting-looking timelines, complete with areas for graphics and text annotations. The most fascinating part of this bit of programming is that once finished, the timeline can be viewed diagonally in a 3-D aspect, and as one moves from event to event the timeline moves and the annotations appear to fold outward from the flat timeline background. It’s easier to look at than to explain, and the company provides ample demonstration movie files. For $65 it is something of a one-trick pony, but if you need to create a timeline for a lecture there’s nothing quite like it. Enjoy.

Steve Cunningham is a senior lecturer in technology in the Thornton School, Music Industry Department at USC. He can be reached at voicetalent@mac.com.



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