Multimedia video-conferencing

If it seems as though I’ve been on an iChat add-on spree over the past week, it’s because I’ve found a number of cool ways to add features to Apple’s chat and conferencing app. Take today’s Gem, Eberhard Rensch’s € 15 ShowMacster 1.8 (   ). Have you ever been in a video chat and wanted to show the other people in the conference an image or movie? You can drag a media file into iChat to send it to the other participants in your chat, but then they have to download the file and open it on their own Mac. ShowMacster lets you display media files in iChat itself, upgrading iChat conferences to full-blown multimedia presentations.

When ShowMacster is installed on your own Mac, iChat video-chat windows include a new drawer—shown or hidden via a new ShowMacster button in the chat window—for adding multimedia to your conferences.

ShowMacster drawer

If you want to show an image or video to the other people in your AV chat, simply drag the file into the “drop zone” in the drawer; it will immediately be displayed—in place of your mug—in the video windows of other participants. (Any image or video format supported by QuickTime should work; smaller files will work better than larger ones, because of both CPU demands and network limitations.) In the case of images, the static image will be displayed; videos will be played back, including audio. Because ShowMacster uses iChat itself to send images and video, those receiving the media don't need to be using ShowMacster; just iChat 2 or later.

ShowMacster video
Broadcasting a video file to someone via iChat; note
that you see the video playing in the picture-in-picture
window instead of yourself. The other person is viewing
a full-window version of the movie in place of your mug.

In my testing, the quality of video is quite good (assuming a good connection and a high-quality video file, of course). Images, on the other hand, are much blurrier than the originals—you’re basically “video-izing” them, so their resolution is reduced significantly. To stop displaying the video or image, click the Stop button in the ShowMacster drawer.

While an image or video is displayed, you can still talk to other chat participants; in the case of a movie file, your audio is mixed with the audio from the movie. As with standard video in iChat, video and images will appear backwards to you, but will appear correctly to the other participants in the chat.

Unfortunately, although the ShowMacster Web site claims you can play audio files for other people in an AV chat, in my testing on several systems, dragging any type of audio file onto ShowMacster’s drop zone caused iChat to crash.

If you tend to use the same images and/or video files frequently, you can save them to ShowMacster by dragging them into the top area of the ShowMacster drawer; once added, you can display an item in a chat by simply clicking the Play button next to its icon in the drawer. You can also assign keyboard shortcuts to an item by clicking the Command button next to its icon and providing the desired shortcut. Via the pop-up menu at the top of the drawer, you can organize these frequently-used media into categories. (ShowMacster includes a small library of “smiley” images.) And if one of your chat participants asks for the original version of one of these files, you can simply drag it from the drawer into the main iChat window to send the original via iChat’s file transfer feature.

Each file stored in the ShowMacster drawer has its own info window, accessible via the Info (“i”) button next to it. The features of this window vary by type of file; for example, while a video is playing, its info window lets you control playback speed and jump to a specific place in the video.

ShowMacster’s ability to show images and videos is neat, but it also has a couple other unique features. My favorite is the Sketchboard. Accessible via the pop-up menu at the bottom of the ShowMacster drawer, the Sketchboard lets you “draw” on images. Drag an image into the Sketchboard and you can draw freehand lines or use the “circle” tool to highlight particular parts of the image; click the Play button in the Sketchboard image to display the drawn-upon image in iChat. (You can open an image in your frequently-used files list by highlighting it and then choosing “Open Sketchboard with selected background” from the pop-up menu.) This feature is useful for pointing out a particular part of an image; however, as with standard images, Sketchboard images look fairly blurry to other conference participants; for example, it’s difficult to read text in screenshots. And it would have been nice to be able to add text annotations to images; I suspect that the blurriness of transmitted images is the reason for this ommission.

ShowMacster Sketchboard window
ShowMacster’s Sketchboard window...
ShowMacster Sketchboard being broadcast
...which can be broadcast to other chat participants...
ShowMacster Sketchboard as it appears to others
who see a blurrier version of the image.

The other neat feature is the ability to send live video of your own screen to other AV chat participants. Choose “Add live capture” from the pop-up menu at the bottom of the ShowMacster drawer, and you’re asked to choose a portion of your screen to capture. The capture doesn’t start immediately; rather, the “capture area” is added to ShowMacster’s file list in the drawer. Clicking the Play button for this new item begins the screen capture broadcast. Although I found this approach to be confusing, it does provide the benefit of making that same capture area available in the future.

The live screen capture feature can be useful if you want to demonstrate a procedure—say, enabling Windows File Sharing—to someone on the other end. In fact, thanks to iChat’s One-Way Video Chat option, the recipient of your video broadcast doesn’t even need to have a camera—just iChat 2 or later. On the other hand, as you might expect given my comments above, video transmitted via this live screen capture feature is very low-res. But for helping your non-tech-savvy in-laws in a pinch, it may just do the job.

ShowMacster live video capture

Overall, ShowMacster is a very cool way to share media with other AV chat participants. Given its low-res image transmission, and its apparent problems with audio files, it’s not ready for demanding conferencing requirements, but it will be good enough for basic use and its technology is undeniably cool.

ShowMacster requires an iSight (including the built-in iSight on the latest Macs) or a FireWire Webcam. It’s compatible with Mac OS X 10.3 or later and iChat AV.

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