iChat fun

Most of the products covered in Mac Gems are useful—they help increase your productivity or reduce your frustration. But every once in a while it’s good to have some fun. (OK, so it’s also good to get away from your Mac and have some old-fashioned away-from-the-computer fun, but then you wouldn’t be here reading this article, and we can’t have that, can we?) Today’s entry falls into that category.

If you’ve ever installed Apple’s Xcode developer tools, you may have discovered Core Image Fun House, a nifty utility that lets you apply various Core Image filters and effects to images. Many of the effects are quite cool and it’s impressive what you can do without knowing anything about how the underlying technologies actually work. Similarly, Apple’s Photo Booth application lets you apply Core Image filters to photos you take with the built-in iSight on newer Macs.

But why stop there? Wouldn’t it be fun to apply such effects to, say, iChat videoconferences? Script Software apparently thought so, as the $20 chatfx 1.2.1 (   ) does just that. After installing chatfx, open the video preview window (accessible by clicking the video camera icon next to your own name in your Buddy or Bonjour list); a new drawer appears at the bottom of the window with chatfx’s controls:

chatfx drawer

Check the On box to enable chatfx and then choose an effect from the pop-up menu—over 60 are available in the current version. These effects range from color transformations (such as a sepia effect) to distortions (think carnival fun house) to foreground overlays (such as bubbles or sparkles floating over your mug). You also get some artistic interpretations, such as Charcoal, Pencil Drawing, and Comic Book. You can even make iChat perform entertaining tricks such as sticking your video on the sides of a rotating cube. (One of my favorite effects: “Wipe off the Snow,” which covers the iChat window with a layer of white; movement “wipes off” the snow—at least until it fills in again.) Many effects can be customized by clicking the Edit Settings buttons.

chatfx’s Charcoal effect
chatfx's Charcoal effect

chatfx’s Comic Book effect
chatfx's Comic Book effect

As much fun as it is to play around with chatfx’s effects on your own, they can be humorously startling when you invite someone to a video chat and show up like something out of a 50’s horror movie—or an episode of The X-Files .

chatfx’s X-Ray effect
chatfx's X-Ray effect

But chatfx isn’t all “novelty” effects; several of the modes actually have some utility. For example, the Cubic Photo Slideshow mode lets you choose a folder of images and display them to other people in your video chat as a slideshow—displayed on the sides of a rotating cube.

chatfx’s Cubic Photo Slideshow mode
chatfx's Cubic Photo Slideshow effect

And the Desktop option presents your Mac’s onscreen display to video-chat participants, a useful feature that lets you do real-time demonstrations.

chatfx’s Desktop mode
chatfx's Desktop effect

But the coolest chatfx effects are, in theory, the Bluescreen modes, which let you place an image, or even a movie, “behind” you in the video sent to other chat participants. You simply place a single-color background behind you—for example, a blue or green bedsheet—and then choose that color as the key color; your chosen image or video will appear behind you to others in your chat. For example, you could take a picture of your office and then participate in work-related video chats from the beach house. (Not that I would do this; I don’t even own a beach house.) An interesting variation on this theme is “Me And My Desktop,” which uses your Mac’s display as the Bluescreen background.

chatfx’s Bluescreen Desktop mode
chatfx's Bluescreen Desktop effect

Unfortunately, these Bluescreen modes feel incomplete: For example, although you can use the Edit Settings button to choose the movie displayed behind you, you have to manually type the path to that movie—there’s no navigation dialog and you can’t drag-and-drop the desired file (not to mention that you can’t easily choose an image on your hard drive as a background; chatfx wants the URL to an image on the Web). And although the Bluescreen and Bluescreen/Desktop effects let you change the key color, the Bluescreen/Movie mode doesn’t. Finally, in my testing with a couple different backgrounds, it was difficult to find the right color sensitivity level: Too sensitive and the Bluescreen was disrupted by subtle differences in lighting and shadows across the background; not sensitive enough and everything on the screen, including yourself, became “Bluescreen.” Still, this feature of chatfx is promising.

(Note that if you’re skilled with Quartz Composer —also part of the Xcode tools—you can create your own effects for chatfx.)

Although chatfx is a lot of fun, it’s also very demanding of your Mac. As Script Software explains:

ChatFX is video intensive which may be demanding on older Macs. A fast video card and lots of video ram helps. We are working at optimizing it right now for older Macs. ChatFX seems to work particularly well on Intel Macs but it will depend on the video ram and video card. Another thing to be aware of is that some effects are more demanding then others. ’Cube’ is less processor intensive then ’Greenscreen’ or ’See through my tears’. Try using the less video demanding effects. Also quitting any other applications that are demanding on video will help. ChatFX definitely pushes the limits of technology at this time but is still very useable/fun to use all the time on many varieties of Macs.

In my testing on a 1.83GHz MacBook Pro with 1.5GB of RAM, performance varied significantly depending on the effect. Many of the simpler effects worked in real time; however, the more demanding effects exhibited varying degrees of lag between my movements and the reproduction of those movements onscreen. For example, when using the Comic Noir effect, the lag was as long as a second. Since audio is not delayed, when using these intensive effects the audio and video are, to varying degrees, out of sync. (I also got a few crashes after repeatedly switching between effects.)

The good news is that chatfx’s effects only lag once. By that I mean that since chatfx handles all the video processing on your end, there’s no additional slowdown on the other end; the people seeing your special-effects-laden video see it just as you do.

Chatfx isn’t a “must-have” Gem that will dramatically increase your productivity. But it’s definitely one of the more entertaining ones, and an impressive display of Mac OS X technologies; I suspect it will only get better over time. And the Desktop modes do provide some practical use—perhaps even enough to get your boss to pay for a copy.

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