Lights, Camera, Pc Shortcuts

Even if you're not the office techno-nerd, you've probably figured out clever ways of doing things on your PC that you'd like to share with colleagues. But it's a pain to write out a description--even if you don't forget a key step. Demonstrations are more effective, but they're often too time-consuming.

For the past year, Lotus Development Corp. has quietly offered a cheap, simple solution to this problem. Lotus ScreenCam lets you record a series of screen actions with voice-over narration. Playback software, which may be duplicated and distributed without charge, allows the ScreenCam "movie" to be viewed on any Windows PC. The result is much like the computer demos you see in stores or the on-screen tutorials for new software. "If one person figures out how to do something, he is able to just E-mail it around," says Joel Tepp, a vice-president of Kemper Securities in Seattle. Tepp used ScreenCam to help Kemper's mutual-fund division move from a minicomputer-based system to Windows.

SILENT MOVIES. Training is the natural business market for ScreenCam. But the original version had one big drawback: The overwhelming majority of office PCs lack sound capability, so they had no way to play back the narration. ScreenCam 2.0, scheduled for release in March at about $70, solves the problem by allowing on-screen captions to substitute for narration. Leaving out the sound has another advantage: Sound files get very big very fast, even though compression technology in the new version has cut the size of recordings in half--to 500 kilobytes per minute. By contrast, a two-minute silent movie I made weighed in at 119 kilobytes--small enough to be distributed on floppy disk or E-mail, even over dial-up connections.

Producing a silent cybermovie is a straightforward affair, but it takes planning. I start by running through the planned actions several times to make sure I understand exactly what's happening at each point and to think about the text I'll want to add. Then I design captions. You can create your own backgrounds for the captions, perhaps incorporating a company logo, or you can use a Lotus selection.

Now comes the trickiest part: recording the movie. You go through the screen actions you want to demonstrate and use function keys to display and clear the captions in sequence. I often need several "takes" to get just what I want. But it's no real challenge to plan and record a two- or three-minute demonstration in less than an hour's work.

CAPTION SNAFUS. Computer training isn't the only use for ScreenCam. Demos of new software for potential users can also be created with the program. Kemper's Tepp looks forward to using ScreenCam to supply information on investment products to brokers or customers. "The captions allow us to handle the needed disclaimers," he says.

The program could still use some improvement. While you can add a new soundtrack to an already recorded movie, you can't edit the sound. Similarly, there's no way to insert a caption into a movie once it's made without rerecording the entire session. A way to rearrange captions would also help. Now, if you write two captions in reverse order, you have to delete one, then re-create it to fix the problem.

For reasons known only to Lotus, the company kept the original version something of a secret, distributing it mainly as part of its SmartSuite office package and loaded on IBM ThinkPads. Product manager Steve Barlow says the new version will be widely available at software retailers. It's well worth a look.

Note: America Online subscribers can download a ScreenCam player and sample movies from the "Search BW" area of BUSINESS WEEK Online.

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