Build Interactive Product and Service Demonstrations in Minutes
By Mike Riley
So you've just finished the most sophisticated ASP.NET application you've ever constructed. And by sophisticated I mean complex. It's a thing of beauty, but how do you demonstrate your creation to its user base without a lengthy written dissertation or bandwidth-gobbling video? Macromedia has the answer.
Macromedia's Flash presentation file format has certainly become the de facto standard for dynamic content presentation on the Web. Everything from introductory pages on Web sites, to animated ad banners and interactive brochures are being delivered to cross-platform browsers capable of rendering Flash .swf files.
Realizing the dominance they have over the interactive Web marketplace, Macromedia purchased eHelp Corp. in October 2003 to further promote the Flash format beyond simple (and, by design, often distracting) Web page animations, and propel it further into the eLearning market space. Although eHelp was better known for its electronic Help documentation-authoring tool RoboHelp, the company also created a tool, called RoboDemo, designed to deliver dynamic slideshows for product demonstration purposes. Because RoboDemo uses the Macromedia Flash format for its file packaging, delivery, and rendering format, they became an ideal acquisition for Macromedia.
Recording a Demo
Using the product is incredibly straightforward. Even though the packaged version ships with a sparse 14-page installation manual (half of which is focused on product activation and troubleshooting), the product is intuitive enough to learn by simply clicking on things. RoboDemo includes a simple tutorial that neatly summarizes most of what the product can do. I was recording my first project within minutes of briefly reviewing the tutorial. Simply target the window of interest, click the Record button, and capture away.
Figure 1: The main composition screen is uncluttered and intuitive, making new users instantly productive.
Most RoboDemo projects will either be screen recordings of software processes, or imports of PowerPoint and/or other Flash presentations. PowerPoint slides maintain their layouts while additional media objects can be embedded into the project. With the help of Advanced Audio Management, synchronized audio can be merged with the imported slides for an audiovisual experience suitable for Web, removable media, or kiosk distribution. The simplicity of the product hides the fact that all these elements are Flash objects and timelines. Thus, you don't have to be a Flash wizard to assemble a compelling demonstration.
More than a Slide Show
Figure 2: Rudimentary interactivity can be added to RoboDemo presentations in the form of button clicks that can trigger playback actions, such as branching to another section or passing a URL into the user's default Web browser.
In addition to demonstrating the product itself using RoboDemo, Macromedia also features a list of public customer sites that have used the product. Most of these are demonstrations with little to no interactivity, but they do effectively illustrate the results generated by the program.
Bandwidth constraints kept most of the customers highlighted on Macromedia's showcase page (http://www.macromedia.com/cfusion/showcase/index.cfm?event=finder&productid=18051&loc=en_us) from exhibiting the more elaborate video imports that RoboDemo allows. One bandwidth-related problem that immediately becomes apparent is RoboDemo's lack of a built-in visual indicator for Flash clients that more content is being downloaded from the server. There were many times, particularly with Macromedia's own RoboDemo-authored demonstration, that I thought the presentation had either failed or locked up. I would have been more tolerant of the condition if I had seen some type of indicator informing me that more data was being downloaded from the server, rather than showing me a slider bar that simply refused to move past a certain frame position.
Figure 3: Audio events can be managed using the Advanced Audio Management dialog box.
Editing Costs Extra
An irksome omission from the package is an add-on known as the RoboDemo FLA module. This expensive export module allows FlashMX users to edit RoboDemo-generated projects. This extra cost is a holdover from when eHelp wasn't exclusively chanting the Flash mantra. Now that the companies are combined, so too should the software. I would expect Macromedia to build this export functionality directly into future editions of the product to build up the new feature list while promoting the use of its flagship dynamic media creation tool. For now, however, developers looking to further manipulate RoboDemo-compiled presentations will need to shell out two Ben Franklins to license the technology.
So has RoboDemo 5 succeeded in its objective to make online product and service demonstrations a painless process? Yes. Is the product perfect? Not yet, but given Macromedia's track record for acquiring companies and merging the technology assets into its future product roadmaps, RoboDemo should quickly evolve into a standard authoring tool for product demonstrations and limited interactive eLearning scenarios.
Incredibly easy to use.
Imports PowerPoint presentations for enhanced multimedia presentation authoring needs.
Only exports presentation to Flash (.swf) file format.
Exports cross-platform playback files, including standalone executable files for the Windows, Linux, and Macintosh platforms.
Requires an expensive add-on to edit Flash files in Macromedia FlashMX.
Figure 4: RoboDemo 5 "Pros" and "Cons."
Although I still hope one day Macromedia will embrace the SVG standard to provide a non-proprietary alternative, realistically Macromedia doesn't need to because their Flash players execute on nearly every meaningful computing platform available. If your human resource or marketing departments are seeking a quick and easy way to maximize the impact of a message, RoboDemo 5 should be the first place to start your search.
Web Site: http:// www.macromedia.com
Price: US$599 (FLA module, US$199)