Visual Communicator software

A decent Webcam, a green backdrop, and Serious Magic's new Visual Communicator software: those tools -- plus a little practice -- are all you need to turn a garden-variety PC into a remarkably potent video production machine. The slick videos you can create will add multimedia zing to everything from business chalk talks to virtual reunions.

Part presentation package, part video capture/editing utility, part sheer technical innovation, Visual Communicator ($US100) fairly bursts at the seams with features. Its TV prompter-style window cues you through prepared text; the profusion of glossy templates, text overlays, and transitional effects wouldn't look out of place on CNN. Most intriguing, its V-Screen option digitally replaces a green backdrop on the fly, letting you plunk yourself in front of the White House or any other scene you choose. You can improvise the required backdrop or opt for the $US150 Plus edition, which includes the green backing and a lapel microphone.

With a maximum display resolution of 640x480, the videos that this software produces (in Windows Media or AVI format) are primarily tailored for distribution via e-mail, the Web or a local-area network. A reasonably modern computer is a must -- at medium quality, my 700MHz Pentium III machine chugged away for about two minutes to process each minute of video.

Ultimately, Visual Communicator isn't as effortless as its drag-and-drop interface suggests: I spent lots of time with the program's online manual, and my lighting and Webcam required frequent tweaking. While not a complete no-brainer, the program is both useful and enormously entertaining -- and the closest most of us will ever get to commandeering a TV studio.

Visual Communicator

Exceptionally innovative video presentation software featuring glossy templates, text overlays and effects that wouldn't look out of place on the small screen.

Price: $US100 (Standard edition) buy online.

URL: www.seriousmagic.com.

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