Text to movie with Xtranormal & State

I created the above video as an introduction to HarIT, the Green IT event of Avenues 2009, the annual B-school fest of SJMSOM, my B-school. I used the text to movie service – Xtranormal. It is a handy and innovative service that allows you to make movies by literally placing words in the mouths of characters. It has been around for a few months now and it recently launched a desktop software for making movies called State.

So, there are now two ways to make movies – one using the online service and two using the State software. The service is available in a basic and premium version. The basic version limits the number of actors, scenes & voices available. There are numerous worlds available online (see pic below) while the desktop software limits the worlds available but provides more actors, scenes & voices. The software is in beta and so is likely to change to be consistent with the online version.

Xtranormal worlds

The desktop software, State, requires you to have an account on Xtranormal and login before you can start using it. This is likely to regulate features available to free and premium members. It can be a bit of a problem to use the software if you are behind an authenticated proxy like me, as it does not load without logging in. It seems to use the proxy settings from Internet Explorer, but doesn’t prompt you for authentication. Due to this, it almost became a non-starter. However, I managed to find a workaround using a HTTP tunnel client that removes the need for authentication and sets up a local proxy address instead.

State Login

Since the software is in beta there are frequent updates, and upon logging in, you may find yourself facing an update window. When I was using the software the day before, it was prompting me for updates, but failed to download any of the files and later on, the prompts went away.

State Update

However, the software is quite easy to use (though pretty unstable – crashed many many times) and I managed to put together the video you saw on top in half a day. Not bad for a first time user eh? 🙂 It seems to support movie exports in 3 formats as of now (I used only the AVI option). It has support for background scores, character expressions, postures, movements, looking and lots more. There also seem to be a few placeholder elements in the interface indicating that there’ll be support for inserting videos and pictures along with the option of recording audio (or are those premium features?). In absence of these features as of now, I just exported an AVI file and then did some editing in Windows Live Movie Maker (another easy to use & handy product) to create the final piece.

Here’s a screenshot from the software:

State screenshot

One of the things that struck me while making the video was the level to which text to speech has progressed. Earlier, I remember the text to speech convertors spelling out words in case it did not have it built in. In State however, the words were handled phonetically. There were some limitations of course with the default spellings for some of the Indian words, but I solved them easily by going in for phonetic spellings. For example, HarIT was being pronounced as Har-I-T rather than Har-eet, and the latter is the spelling we used in the script to get the desired result. Similarly we also had to split facebook to “face book” to get the right pronunciation.

Overall, the service holds a lot of promise and if you look into the future, it’s only a matter of a few years before we’re able to create high quality animated movies from our personal machines. Just imagine directing well known characters yourself. That said, the online version seems to be having load issues as the number of users seems to have expanded quite a bit. The desktop version does addresses the availability problems of the online version, but the feature sets are not same across the two.

You can also check out the Xtranormal youtube channel to catch their latest movies.

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More dynamic playlists for the iPod

I had written about the usefulness of dynamic playlists, ratings and tagging for organizing music on my iPod last year. Since then, I have loaded more music onto my iPod, and I was looking for ways to play the recently loaded music. In addition, I also found that just relying on the genre and ratings of songs to create dynamic playlists (the option can be found under the file menu) is not sufficient.

Looking at the play count of the files in iTunes, I found that over 2500 songs have never been played. So, I went about creating some more dynamic playlists. One had to be for songs that I have not yet listened to, while another for recently loaded songs. So, now I have the following dynamic playlists on my iPod:

  1. Top rated songs – for songs with a rating of 5 stars
  2. 4 stars – for the next best songs
  3. Recently added – for songs added in the last 60 days (this filter can be set in different ways)
  4. Low play count and unrated – for songs having play count of less than 2 (unrated songs is mainly to decrease the size of the playlist as high rated songs will feature in other lists) – useful for rating songs too
  5. Top rated Hindi songs – for songs having “Hindi” in the genre tag and rating >= 4
  6. Top rated Bengali songs – for songs having “Bengali” in the genre and rating >= 4
  7. Top rated Western – songs not having “Hindi” and “Bengali” in their genre and rating >=4

Now I find that the music is fairly well organized and I can listen to the types I want quite easily. Also for those looking to backup the contents of the iPod, there are some free alternatives like iDump. Also, the new versions of Winamp (5.3 onwards) also include plugins for backing up music from the iPod.

Tags, ratings, dynamic playlists and the iPod

It turns out that tagging and ratings are useful not only for blogs and other web content, but also for music on your iPod (the 30 GB video version), especially when you have over 4000 songs in it. Audio files were probably one of the first to support tagging which was really useful for the user. iPod/iTunes (and many other players) can also use these tags to create dynamic playlists based on given criteria. This makes the tags all the more useful.

I listen to a variety of music, and unless the music is properly tagged, it would be nearly impossible (or atleast too tedious) to locate and listen to the song(s) I want to at a given time. The basic tags like title, artist, album and genre are pretty much a necessity, and identifying songs in their absence would be impossible without actually listening to them. Ratings also serve as a useful filtering criterion.

I have also found the dynamic or smart playlists feature of iTunes/iPod to be particularly useful when it comes to listening to music of a certain variety. I create a set of smart playlists based on different moods, ratings, genres etc and when the music tags are updated, songs automatically get into the appropriate playlist(s). This saves a considerable amount of effort and also keeps my playlists up to date.

Get hooked to internet radio and save the music

There are numerous internet radio stations available today, & a wide variety of players to listen to them. However, in case you want to save the songs you’ve been listening to, then you have a problem. There’s no way to easily record the music easily, & store them in an organised manner. This is where Screamer-Radio comes in. It’s a very small program which allows you to listen to various radio stations, AND record them as separate tracks. It even adds the artist name & title to the files.

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