Serious Magic brings TV effects to PCs

Common but flashy TV effects like slick text overlays, animation, and mixing graphics and real people are created by high-end hardware that costs tens of thousands of dollars. But Visual Communicator, introduced here at Comdex, aims to put a remarkable amount of this power into the hands of PC users for only US$99.

One of the most interesting products introduced at the mostly humdrum Comdex 2001, Visual Communicator is scheduled to ship in January as the first offering from a start-up called Serious Magic Inc. It's headed by veterans of Play, which produced the popular Snappy video digitizer a few years ago.

Visual Communicator is the first product based on Serious Magic's Ultra Engine, a technology platform that's designed to product broadcast TV-like effects on ordinary PCs--no exotic hardware required.

Judging from demos of a beta version at the company's Comdex booth, the results are impressive. While future Ultra Engine products could be aimed at broadcast professionals, Visual Communicator aims to let typical PC users create slick shows with point-and-click ease. Serious Magic envisions an array of applications for the package--home movies, business presentations, school projects, product demonstrations for online auctions, and more.

Besides the $99 standard edition, it will offer Visual Communicator Plus. This version will ship with a 4-by-5-foot green backdrop for use with the V-Screen feature, which lets users overlay real people on virtual backgrounds.

Nifty Effects

The package lets users capture video clips with a standard Webcam, then dress them up with a profusion of effects such as text overlays and transition animations. To use the V-Screen feature, for example, a person can sit in front of the green backdrop, and V-Screen removes the green area on the fly and replaces it with a specified graphic--a photo of the White House briefing room, say. A built-in teleprompter feature assists users with recitation of prepared text.

The product will ship with an assortment of graphics, video clips, templates, and other canned content to be used as-is or customized.

Visual Communicator isn't designed to output high-quality, full-screen video for output to video tape. Rather, it's meant for video clips that can be e-mailed, placed on the Web, or burned onto a CD-R disc--ones that play back in a reduced-size window, using standard formats such as AVI.

Still, the demos that Serious Magic are presenting at Comdex are slick indeed, with a look and feel that is reminiscent of a broadcast TV production. And it's a genuine breakthrough that they can be produced on a garden-variety PC. According to Serious Magic, the software will run on a typical Pentium III system, but it can also take advantage of the Pentium 4's advanced number-crunching capabilities for superior performance.

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Harry McCracken

PC World
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