Reviewed by: Paul Schneider, Ph.D., January 2006
Published by: Right Seat Software
Requires: Pentium processor 500MHz or faster, Windows, PowerPoint 2000 or later, 128MB RAM, 160MB free hard disk space
MSRP: US$199.00 (download)
We have all heard of death by PowerPoint, and though PowerPoint is rarely the true culprit, this moniker has certainly become associated with it. While a speaker's presentation that relies on PowerPoint for support is one thing, we often also see the distribution of PowerPoint presentations which provide detailed instruction or a self-paced learning presentation. Needless to say, even with features such as voice-over narration, we often begin to feel that slow death. VoxProxy aims to help you in that department by adding lively animated characters to your PowerPoint presentations and breathing a little life into your self-paced productions.
VoxProxy runs as a plug-in directly in PowerPoint and provides additional functionality for any PowerPoint presentation. The primary purpose of VoxProxy is to allow you to add animated talking characters to your presentation and in essence, provide your users with a virtual live presenter. VoxProxy utilizes Microsoft Agent technology to add animated characters. VoxProxy is essentially an interface that eliminates the need to program the characters, instead providing wizard-based scripting. Using VoxProxy a user can script any number of different actions and movements as well as add text to speech or audio recordings. When adding characters, you can choose from 27 different ones, each with different personalities and animated actions. Many of these characters were created specifically for VoxProxy, but the program also allows you to add or purchase additional Microsoft Agent characters from any number of companies.
While characters in VoxProxy can perform a large number of actions, the number and type of actions do vary by character. For example, the character Paul has over 100 different actions, while some others may have anywhere from 50-100. Adding audio to a character is as simple as using the "Say" wizard and typing in the text. The audio for the characters, by default, uses a Text to Speech (TTS) engine called TruVoice, supplied by Microsoft. Alternatively you can also use your own recordings, or for an additional fee, use Natural Voices, a higher quality text to speech engine from AT&T Labs.
The audio quality of the characters will vary depending on the TTS engine that is used. In my experience the default engine sounded a lot like, well, a computer talking to you. The Natural Voices engine from AT&T Labs was definitely a step up, and while not natural quality, did sound quite acceptable in most cases. If you are still not happy with the audio quality you can bypass the text to speech engine and use audio recordings. The biggest problem with this route is that you will lose some of the flexibility of the tool. If you stick with the TTS engines you can tweak any speech and speech balloon with a simple text change and update various pieces without needing to re-record anything.
VoxProxy is fairly easy to use once you get going, but I do recommend that you view all of the tutorials before you try using it, in order to avoid unnecessary frustrations. The tutorials were done utilizing VoxProxy characters as virtual instructors, and overall they are quite well done. In utilizing the software you will find that there are a number of wizards that make creating your script and various character actions fairly easy. The type of actions you can add include moving across the screen, saying things, pointing, listening, writing, and much more. There are also a number of non-character actions that can be invoked such as loading Flash, Excel, Word, media and other files as part of the presentation.
The scripts you create are actually text files that can be edited and adjusted in any text editor. For the programmers out there this makes it easy to adjust and make changes to your presentation in a text editor if you prefer. However, for most people, sticking to the built-in tools will make life much easier. The script builder wizards take most of the guesswork out of adding and using the characters, and while admittedly a bit confusing at first, it certainly makes the scripting process easier.
The characters you add will not only speak to you, but will also interact and talk back and forth between each other if you want. In addition they can also listen and can, through speech recognition software, create a truly interactive experience. To be fair, I didn't try this feature, but given that it uses Microsoft’s technology to accomplish this, I imagine the speech recognition performance is similar to other tools that I've used, which generally speaking have pretty fair capabilities.
By exporting your presentations you can make them available to other people, but to experience the characters they will need to use the free VoxPlayer plug-in. If they don't have this plug-in, the PowerPoint will play, but without the animated characters, actions, and sound. For those people who want to distribute their presentation over the web, they can do this just as they would any other PowerPoint, or they can do a web-ready recoding through the use of another third party tool, such as Camtasia. I tried the latter, and following the guidelines on the VoxProxy site I was able to make a Flash version of the presentation in no time.
There are a great number of features in VoxProxy and it is a bit complicated in the beginning. The average PowerPoint user will definitely want to make use of the tutorials and plan to spend some extra time putting together their first presentation. For those of you who have never worked with animation, you're in for a surprise. Making your characters seem lively and active can be time consuming. Though the tool gives you lots of scripted actions, you still need to mix them up when creating your presentation in order to avoid creating a stiff lecturer for your virtual presenter. It is also worth mentioning that from time to time I did have some performance problems. I might create a presentation and then attempt to play it, but end up waiting and waiting for it to start. As these problems weren't consistent it’s hard to tell if it was a user error or truly a problem with VoxProxy.
Overall, VoxProxy is quite impressive in its ability to bring the Microsoft Agent technology to your fingertips. The flexibility of the tools and its wealth of options make it extremely powerful. However, there is no getting around how time consuming creating a good animation can be. Be that as it may, VoxProxy does make it a lot easier and much faster than trying to do the same thing in Flash. If you are bored with distributing plain PowerPoints, take a look at VoxProxy. You might start to get more requests for canned presentations!
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