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.

University 2.0 ideas

In the last few weeks, I’ve come across quite a few presentations regarding University 2.0 (links: 1 2). They seek to make use of several Web 2.0 technologies, that have become popular in the last 2-3 years, for educational institutions. This idea seems quite interesting to me, especially because I was trying to get some of those technologies like wikis and blogs implemented for our b-school. I have another year and a half of my course remaining, and I hope to implement as many of them as I can with help of my classmates and others from the school.

So, here’s a a basic outline of the ideas:

LinkedIn profiles

LinkedIn has become a standard in professional social networks, and it is quite important for professionals to have an up to date LinkedIn profile. My idea is to get everyone to set up their profiles and put the links on our school student profile pages.

Student & Faculty introduction videos

This will make the profiles richer, and should definitely look better than having just static photographs. There are several online video sharing sites, and any of them could be used for this purpose. It could be done initially for the students who are part of different committees, and later expanded for the others depending on the response.

Social network groups

There are several social networks out there like orkut, facebook etc, and our school has a group on each of them. They need to be streamlined a bit and kept up to date. The links to the groups could also be placed on the official school site to gain better visibility.

Online magazine

We have a school magazine L!VE that is published both physically and electronically. However, the electronic version is in a pdf form with only a few of the articles being published in html form. My intention is to make use of  a blogging platform to publish our magazine online. This will not only increase the visibility of the magazine, but also facilitate interaction on the articles and get the content indexed on search engines. WordPress seems to be an ideal platform for this purpose, and there are quite a lot of magazine themes for this purpose.

School blog

Currently we do not have a blog for our school. However, we do make use of blogs during our annual b-school fest like we did for AVENUES 08 this time. The idea here is to make blogging a continuous phenomenon. This should again facilitate interaction, increase visibility, and keeps notifications up to date.

Wiki

I had already started a wiki some time back, and did manage to put up some content on it. Over time, it can become a very important knowledge repository with different kinds of information on our school.

Once set up, these avenues should definitely help the school from different aspects. Moreover, most of these services can be setup or for free. There are of course several other services that can be used in addition to the ones mentioned here like photo sharing, social bookmarking etc. So, the main investment required will be time, which is quite an important commodity in management courses :-).

However, there are several challenges and constraints to be overcome before these become a reality, the biggest of which is going to be getting participation and garnering critical mass from the various stakeholders so that this initiative can be sustained in the long run.

Do education institutes need wikis?

Now that many companies have adopted wikis internally and are beginning to understand their power, why should education institutes be left behind. After all, the knowledge density in education institutes is bound to be as high as, if not higher, than in most companies. Moreover, content creation is part of any education process, and a wiki is an ideal medium for refining the content and making it available to a wide audience. So, what are the stumbling blocks in the widespread adoption of wiki or any knowledge/content management system for that matter?

Challenges

IBM has WikiCentral, an internal deployment of the Confluence wiki, and I was one of its 125,000+ users. We had wikis for our project, our team and various initiatives. In fact most of the documentation, FAQs etc of our project were on the wiki. So, we could easily refer to them and keep them up to date at the same time.

However, I have found a couple of limitations in wikis during my stint with IBM. Firstly, a wiki (barring wikipedia) is not the reference source (no prizes for guess the first) which means that even if we manage to aggregate a wealth of information, not too many people are going to actually refer to it. This can be tackled in some ways through publicity, which is precisely what was done in IBM. The second and biggest problem is the content creation part which is due to the lack sufficient contributors. Even wikipedia faces this problem (different scales though). I have ended up being one of the handful of contributors to quite a few wikis.

Wiki for SJMSOM

Finding the critical mass of contributors to sustain a wiki is the toughest challenge, and it gets even tougher with a tiny user base. However, I have not yet given up on wikis :-), and now that I am back to being a student, I find that a wiki is an ideal fit for this environment. There is a lot of information that is exchanged among students, and most of this would be of value in the future too. However, this information in the form of emails and verbal communication which makes the persistence quite low. So, a wiki with its persistence and ease of editing is an ideal medium to store all this information.

I did some exploration of different wiki options on the internet, and found two that were well suited: Wikia and Zoho. In fact, Wikia already has a section for students. However, Zoho has better access control (supports domain level access control), and I chose it as the platform for my b-school wiki. Of course an internal wiki deployment would have been ideal, but I’m just doing this as an experiment to see if it works out.

I have been doing some work on it, and the support for HTML embeds is quite handy for adding different widgets on pages. I have currently kept the wiki visible to the public with the ability to add comments. However, editing is restricted to students from SJMSOM (my b-school). It is currently a work in progress, and I am still trying to find the tipping point of contributors 🙂 . So, if you have any comments or suggestions, do share them with me.

P.S. My father has blogged on a similar topic “How Important Is Technology For Knowledge Management?”, and it doesn’t seem to be very encouraging for my experiment 🙂

Some origami video to start with

Over the last week, I have been thinking about doing some video content creation, specifically some kinds of do it yourself videos. I have a liking for origami, and thought this should be a good starting point. I did have a youtube account, but there were also numerous other similar services.

I was wondering which service would be a good choice, and this is when I came across Andy’s post on his choices of online video services. He has given a nice comparison of some of the services like youtube, viddler and seesmic, finally favouring viddler:

Viddler is just so easy to use. It accepts a whole range of common video formats and will transcode them for you. You can tag your videos – and even better than that, you can add comments and tags at particular points in the video. I can embed the videos on my WP.com blog (which is not possible with Seesmic). It’s easy to find and connect with friends. There are groups. There are excellent stats which show where hits on your videos are coming from, including when a video is played through an embed on your site or another one…

The viddler features seemed quite attractive. So, I signed up for it and uploaded my first video (a flapping bird origami). I also did some digging to see how the Viddler videos could be embedded into a WordPress.com blog, and it seems there is a tag to do this:

At the Viddler site, if you click on Menu in the lower right of a video screen, a row of menu selections appear at the top of the video screen. Select “embed” and then click on the “wordpress.com” button and it will give you the code that will work with [WordPress].com.

Here’s the embedded form of the bird origami video (there’s also a flickr photo set for the step by step photos):

I’ll be creating more origami videos along with corresponding flickr sets (also an origami collection for the sets). The only problem for me right now is the slow upload speed (64 kbps), due to which I am uploading low resolution videos (320×240) without audio. As for the video creation, I used my digicam, a Canon Powershot A630 mounted on a Gorillapod to shoot the video, and VirtualDub to re-edit the video (re-encoding to DivX and removing audio).

Some spring cleaning for my blog

Once I settled on del.icio.us as my online bookmarking service of choice, and set it up for daily link posts to the blog along with the easy to use Firefox extension, I have posted very little content of my own. However, now that I have my own domain, it is time to take another look at this situation. The link posts do serve as a daily browsing round up for me, but may not have much utility for others. However, it is probably better to separate the publishing medium for this, and there are quite a few available.

To this end, I have decided to stop daily link posts to this blog. In case you want to check out my del.icio.us links, you can either use the del.icio.us widget on the blog sidebar, visit my tumblog, check out my friendfeed or just go to my profile on del.icio.us directly. This should help in keeping my blog somewhat cleaner. Of course if there are interesting links, I’ll post on them right here.

In addition to this, I have also updated the "About me" section with links to my various profiles on different social networks and online services, so that you know where to find me on which service. If you are a Google Reader user, I share a fair number of articles on Google Reader from a wide variety of sites, including web comics, technology, software, trivia etc. You can also find me on twitter.

Now to start posting some new content. Firefox 3 beta 3 is out, and should make for a nice follow up to my Firefox 3 beta extension compatibility workaround post (which is incidentally the most popular post for my blog by a long margin, thanks to Google).

To diigo or not to diigo – a del.icio.us dilemma

I had posted on my online bookmarking dilemma a couple of months back, and had decided to try out two services – diigo and del.icio.us – based on a basic evaluation of different bookmarking services. I tried out both services for about a month and a half in parallel, by using the diigo extension for Firefox to post simultaneously to diigo and del.icio.us. Last month I switched over to the del.icio.us extension for Firefox to post solely to del.icio.us, and I have continued with this primarily due to its better Firefox extension.

Following is a run down of my observations during the trial run with the two services:

Firefox extensions

I found the del.icio.us extension more handy to use with its suggested tags (your own plus from other users when available) for the bookmarks. The diigo extension on the other hand only had tag auto-completion from the list of tags already used, with no suggestions from tags used by others (it did show other users’ comments when available). Also, the del.icio.us extension provides a button to bookmark the page (something built into the browser Flock by the way) while diigo requires you to either use its toolbar which results in loss of screen real estate (similar to the StumbleUpon toolbar) or right click on the page and choose the bookmark option from the menu (also provided by the del.icio.us extension).

In addition to the ease of bookmarking, the del.icio.us extension also provides a sidebar to search through your bookmarks without having to visit the site.

Website experience

Currently, the diigo site is easily better than the del.icio.us site which has not undergone much of a change in recent times. diigo provides a much better interface. Also, the del.icio.us site is quite slow.

diigo bookmarks

That said, this is due to change soon with both services running private betas for their new sites. Unfortunately I haven’t gotten an invite to either site though I put myself on the waiting list almost 3 months back. However, from what I’ve seen online, the new del.icio.us site looks similar to what is currently available on diigo. See if you have better luck getting into the beta sites:

diigo beta

del.icio.us beta (TechCrunch coverage including screenshots)

Truth be told, I have not had to visit the website of either service much other than to bulk organize some bookmarks and make some setting changes.

Special features

diigo has a much larger feature set than del.icio.us, like text highlighting, posting to other bookmarking sites (something I used throughout to keep in sync with del.icio.us), page caching (this seems to the USP for some users if you look at the TechCrunch post comments on the del.icio.us preview) etc. However, on last try, some features like posting bookmark list to a blog (I discovered that diigo was running on Rails due to the error pages I saw when trying to access this feature), seemed to be buggy. I gave up on the post to blog feature on diigo and switched to del.icio.us which seems to work quite well (though the site leaves much to be desired – the password is in plain text).

Final thoughts (at least till the previews are released)

del.icio.us seems to be serving my online bookmarking requirements quite well (too well if you look at my daily bookmark posts) for the time being. diigo has its uses especially if you are collecting bookmarks for some kind of research – the highlighting can be very useful for annotations (you can also see others’ highlighting if present) and the page cache (available but done manually) should ensure that the page is still available in some form even if the source goes down.

I’ll probably give both services another parallel trial run once the previews are released. And the fact that the import/export feature on both services is quite good, switching back and forth between them shouldn’t be much of a pain (though repeatedly typing “del.icio.us” like I did in this post is).