Video, Anyone?
Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 12 (Dec 2002)

Video, Anyone?

Mark Randall has been walking on the cutting edge of video technology for the better part of 20 years. After starting out with NewTek, the company that ushered in the desktop video revolution with Video Toaster, Randall left in 1994 to become one of six founders of Play, the once high-flying upstart that promised to build the world its first TV studio in a box.

With that kind of pedigree, it should come as no surprise that Randall is again playing the role of video pioneer, this time as president and CEO of Serious Magic. The company's new product, Visual Communicator, began shipping in May, and it's already winning rave reviews from customers and critics alike (see "Computer Graphics World's 2002 Innovation Awards," pg. 28). Its appeal lies in the way it allows virtually anybody to create a professional looking video that can be streamed over the Web or internal network or dumped onto a CD or tape. And because Visual Communicator is priced at just $150, it's a product with true mass-market appeal.

In many ways, the launch of Visual Communicator represents the culmination of a quest that Randall shared with all of his NewTek brethren back in the mid '80s—to democratize the video production process. With the launch of Video Toaster and the unleashing of the desktop video revolution, NewTek took a giant first step toward that goal. What today's video professional can do for a few thousand dollars with Video Toaster running on a desktop PC would have required an investment in equipment costing hundreds of thousands of dollars just 12 years ago.

But for all that Video Toaster is, the one thing it isn't is a video production tool for the layperson. At $3000, it's still too expensive for anybody who's not at least a dedicated video hobbyist. And it's still too complicated a system to be used by, say, the average corporate HR person.

Play shared a similar desire to democratize video production, but on a grander scale. Rather than simply striving to build a video editing system, Play wanted to create a system that included all the components of a real-time, high-end TV station in one affordable box. More than just an editing system, Play's Trinity was also a still store, a virtual-set generator, a character generator, a keyer, and more.

In the end, Play's Trinity system proved to be a marvel of technology that offered some fantastic capabilities but that ultimately couldn't quite deliver on the bold promise of being everything for everybody. And it certainly was never easy to use, nor particularly affordable, once you added in all the bells and whistles.

Visual Communicator is clearly not a product that would be considered a competitor with either Video Toaster or the now-defunct Trinity system. Both of these are sophisticated editing systems that let you manipulate video footage in a sophisticated manner as well as create dazzling visual and audio effects that you can incorporate into your production. By contrast, Visual Communicator is a "templatized" product that emphasizes ease of creation over editing flexibility. What Visual Communicator does is make it extremely easy for anyone to sit right at their PC and create a "talking head" video that has nearly all the glitz of a CNN-type news broadcast. On the other hand, it could never be used to edit a TV commercial or sophisticated music video.

Because of that difference, Visual Communicator is a product that could well bring video production to the masses on a scale the other two products could only dream about. It's a tool that makes it easy and affordable to create polished-looking video that can be used for business or personal communication. And that's really all the mass market needs.

"The concept," says Randall, "was to go beyond traditional video production and try to extend these tools to business people and creative people outside the professional video world. We wanted to make high-quality video content creation into a communication medium instead of a specialized craft that only a few could practice."

In the corporate world, Visual Communicator can be used for all kinds of communication purposes—product demonstrations, training videos, employee orientation, market briefings, quarterly reports, and more. Among the customers already using it for such purposes are Kodak, Motorola, Proctor & Gamble, the US Navy, the US State Department, and the US Senate. Schools can use it for applications like distance learning or career counseling, and home users can use it to create anything from family news bulletins to karaoke videos.

Prior to the launch of Visual Communicator, it was certainly possible to capture raw video with a Webcam and post it on the Web. But it wasn't the easiest thing to do, and the final footage would be just that—raw video.

"If you wanted to have something with some production value," says Randall, "you would have had to hire it out to a video production company. That's what a lot of people did. Most of our customers have reported that the videos they are creating with Visual Communicator had previously cost them $1000 to $5000 to produce. And now they are making it themselves at their desks."

A green mat allows you to do sophisticated chroma-keying with a variety of supplied background images.

Serious Magic realized early on that what it needed to do was rethink the video production process. Today's traditional process requires someone to shoot a video, digitize it, log it, organize the clips in a storyboard, create and add effects, render the result, and finally compress it for distribution. It's a process, says Randall, that is just too long and complex for the mass market.

"What we wanted to do was get rid of that model and have the immediacy of a real-time production, like the way they do the evening news. As you shoot it, it goes out live. We wanted to have that kind of responsiveness."

To achieve that goal, Serious Magic scrapped the whole storyboard metaphor used by all of today's desktop video editing systems and built Visual Communicator around a teleprompter metaphor. "We revisited the original video production model as described in a 1960s-era video production handbook," says Randall, "which called for a TV studio, a teleprompter, a live switcher, and all the graphics and effects being added to the video signal in real time for a finished product. So once you shoot, you're done. There's no editing."

To create a video with Visual Communicator, you type in a script. Then, with the help of a Wizard-style interface, you cut and paste whatever pre-created title pages, backgrounds, graphics, PowerPoint slides, or effects that you want in your video next to the words in the scripts where you want them to appear. The software even comes with a green mat that you can tack on the wall behind your chair, allowing you to do some surprisingly sophisticated chroma-keying using background imagery already supplied within the software.

After you've written a script and placed the graphics into position, you just sit at your desk and read the script as it rolls up your PC screen. The footage is captured by either a Webcam or a more sophisticated digital camera attached directly to your computer. Once the video is shot, you click the Publish button and make a few selections in order to publish the video to the Web or send it off to a tape or CD.

As is often the case with breakthrough inventions, the genius of the product lies in its simplicity.

Although Visual Communicator's primary innovation is in the way it has reworked the video production process, the software does make use of some sophisticated programming to pull it off. Besides incorporating a wizard interface that makes it easy to use pre-created templates and effects, the software also required the development of a sophisticated core engine that makes it possible to deliver the effects in real time and to capture respectable looking chroma-keys even under poor lighting conditions.

"It's a chroma-key technology designed to work in a normal office environment without special lighting and to work with a low-quality camera," says Randall.

By combining that kind of software programming with a radical rethinking of the video production process, Serious Magic appears to have done for video what PowerPoint did for computer graphics—make the technology a mass-market communication tool that is affordable and usable by almost anybody.

And most interesting, although Visual Communicator is not targeted at the professional video crowd, Randall notes that the product is being adopted by that world for its own business communication needs.

"They use it differently than they use their other tools," he acknowledges, but still they use it. "For example, they might have spent days in their production suite working on a project, but if they want to send a quick pitch to a client, they'll come out and use Visual Communicator and a Webcam at their desk because it can be done in five minutes. If they tried to create that same video in the edit suite, it'd be a much more lengthy process."

"People basically use Visual Communicator for the same kind of things they now use PowerPoint for," Randall concludes. "But with Visual Communicator, they can create something much more dynamic." ..

Visual Communicator lets you paste visuals into a script. As you read, images appear on cue in the video.

Stephen Porter is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World.