Serious Magic Visual Communicator 2

Easy live video production for nonprofessionals.
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Serious Magic Visual Communicator 2

Feb 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer

Easy live video production for nonprofessionals.

When the professional AV industry talks about producing video, it's generally about getting a good-looking picture on a quality display rather than the process of actually creating the video material. After all, wiring and evaluating video displays is what we do, and it's a much different job than shooting and editing video. On the other hand, AV professionals are part of the communications industry, and leveraging the power of video can be a great asset.

The trouble is that creating effective video-oriented presentations requires an unfamiliar skill set. Fooling around with lighting, shooting, and editing is time-consuming and often humbling. But what if creating professional videos were as straightforward as mixing videoconferencing with a slide presentation? It would allow businesses, educators, and entertainers to deliver visual messages to a much broader audience, and that's the idea behind Serious Magic's Visual Communicator 2.

Serious Magic describes Visual Communicator 2 as a television studio in a box, but it's a little more than that, and a whole lot less. It's a software application, with a few extras, that gives those who aren't video production professionals all the tools they'll need to harness the communicative power of video without the hassles of shooting, editing, and mastering. That means educators recording lectures for remote delivery, or businesspeople speaking to clients or offices in different locations. It makes communication more personal than email.

Serious Magic makes it all accessible by reducing video production to very basic elements: pointing a web camera or camcorder at oneself or another speaker; hooking up a lapel mic (included) for good, clean audio; reading from a teleprompter, and hitting record. The magic in Visual Communicator is the added production elements that give your otherwise humble video presentations a very professional look.

CONTROL AT YOUR FINGERTIPS

Visual Communicator's main interface is divided into five main areas, starting with a scrolling Teleprompter Window and a Video Preview Window (with your face looking back at you if your camera is pointed toward you). You type in text, then read from the tele-prompter with your camera recording. Easy enough, although perhaps a little boring if that were all. Visual Communicator, however, supplies the polish.

How about title graphics: your name and title in the classic “lower third” position and backed by stylized graphics? The interface prompts you to type that in, as well as a title for your presentation and a closing title, before you even start a project. You pick an appropriate style. There are dozens from which to choose, including those for business, finance, and celebrations grouped in categories like “antique,” “contemporary,” “elegant,” and “cyberspace.” You can also create your own styles if you're ambitious.

And you can mix other graphics into your video. Cut away from your “talking head” to PowerPoint slides, charts, spreadsheets, and so on. If you're publishing to the Web, you can even build URL links into the presentation. Does that sound like video editing? Maybe, but it's easier.

The first of the remaining areas of the main interface is a Media Area, a bin along the bottom in which you'll find the graphic styles, images, media clips, and cutaways you might wish to add to your presentation, plus background audio, saved projects, and a video effects library. You'll add these by dragging them into your presentation in the Action Area interface window.

The Action Area sits right beside the Teleprompter Window and scrolls along with it, acting much like a video editing timeline, only more intuitive. You simply drag a video effect — say, a cut to a sales forecast chart — into the Action Area next to the appropriate place in your teleprompter script. Visual Communicator handles the switching on the fly when the teleprompter gets to that spot.

The final interface window is the Production Control Window, but rather than some complex series of knobs and buttons, it's an unintimidating set of five setup and control tabs. It's here that you'll find camera and mic setup, speed and pause controls for the teleprompter's scroll, as well as duration controls for video effects. The idea is that you build a presentation, complete with all these design elements, rehearse it with the teleprompter, and make adjustments to speed and timing before you record it or stream it to the Internet. In some ways, it's not much different from practicing a presentation in front of the mirror, your dog, or a small group of collaborators.

There's one more trick that Serious Magic has. It's called the V-Screen, a large green vinyl background to hang on the wall behind your camera location. This “green screen” is for chroma-keying a new background behind your talking head, as with the weatherman standing in front of a blank wall with the map superimposed behind him electronically. The idea here is to eliminate most of the setup and lighting hassles that generally come with shooting a video.

You'll still need to get relatively even lighting on that green screen, but that's probably going to be a lot easier than lighting an office. And when you're done, Visual Communicator lets you substitute any background — from a number of stock scenes (both professional and fun) to any image or photograph you might have, even a clear, well-lit photo of your office. With a little care, the background will look quite natural, helping you create the most appropriate setting and mood for your presentation.

THREE COMMUNICATION LEVELS

Studio is one of three versions of Visual Communicator 2, and the differences have to do with output and production features. Visual Communicator Web ($199.95) allows you to publish to web-suitable video codecs. Pro ($399.95) adds full-resolution output to DV or other tape, as well as a broader library of stock effects and graphics. Studio ($695) adds support for live web streaming, full-screen output to a second monitor, multi-camera support for multiple-speaker presentations, and still more effects and graphics. Studio is also most able to import slides, charts, and other business files without conversion, and that probably makes it the most appropriate version for businesses.

There are some omissions in Visual Communicator. For example, there's little help in solving the mystery (for many) of setting up a streaming server. Serious Magic might do well to bundle a limited but free account to a streaming service so that novices could experiment. It would be nice if you could undock the Director Tab and put the teleprompter controls wherever you liked. Also, I experienced some serious problems with a particular new (and straightforward) computer/graphics card configuration, so check Serious Magic's compatibility list before buying.

Still, when it comes to easily building video presentations that can be distributed on tape, disc, or over the Internet, Serious Magic has found a very intuitive way to avoid most of the normal pitfalls of shooting, packaging, and delivering live video. Anyone, they say, can read from a teleprompter and match the right image files with key words in a script. You might try for the same effect by attaching files to emails, but video is a lot more powerful. It communicates emphasis, mood, importance, and style, and that makes it more engaging.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Company: Serious Magic; www.seriousmagic.com

Pros: Facilitates easy creation of professional-looking video presentations.

Cons: There's no help for setting up a streaming server.

Applications: Distance education and corporate presentations to remote locations.

Price: $199.95 for Web version; $399.95 for Pro version; $695 for Studio version.

SPECIFICATIONS

Inputs Camcorders, webcams, PC microphones, VCRs

Import File Types AVI, WMV, ASF, MPG, BMP, JPG, GIF, PNG, PPT (Studio and Pro versions only), WAV, MP3, WMA

Output File Types AVI, WMV, RealVideo 9, DV (Studio version only)

System Requirements (Studio version) Windows 2000 or XP; 933MHz Intel Pentium III processor or equivalent; 256MB RAM; CD-ROM drive; 2.1GB available hard drive space; standard PC sound card; 16MB AGP graphics card with 3D acceleration. Webcams require standard DirectShow-compatible Windows driver (usually included with webcam); camcorders require compatible video input on PC.

Live Streaming Requirements Studio version of software; Intel Pentium 4 processor at 2.4GHz or higher; Nvidia GeForce or ATI Radeon-based AGP video card. USB webcams are not supported for live streaming. Use DV or analog video capture cards.

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