Adobe Captivate 2
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Review: Captivate takes a unique approach to creating training presentations & videos
Feature: Formerly Macromedia RoboDemo, this program automates IT video training

Adobe Captivate 2 is distinctly different in how it approaches the Help training and video presentation tasks in comparison with Techsmith's Camtasia Studio or Qarbon's Viewlet Builder. Captivate provides the best of both worlds - the ability to do both event captures (for efficient filesizes and faster development) and video capture (for demo fidelity) in the same session. Users click on the CTL+F10 to start video capture and CTRL+F11 to revert back to event captures. This is the first of several unique features that sets Captivate apart from its demoware counterparts.

As the screenshot below shows, Captivate has a slide story boards, a fullscreen viewer, and a timeline in its edit window. That Edit Window is one of three tabs that provides a more detailed Storyboard view and a Branching view that becomes important when creating advanced quizzes, simulations, and branching presentations.

Here is the storyboard built up from importing a PowerPoint presentation (via Open Office Impression) with some added video and screen captures done in Captivate Recorder tool (more on this below). This is not a video editor layout but rather a slide/storyboard editor. The Storyboard Panel of slides and screenshot plus inserted video clips goes down the left side panel. The Preview Window is in the middle, the Resources Panel with audio, image, and sound resources is on the right.

This sounds like a video editor. But it is not for one reason - the timeline and all editing extends only for the length of each slide. Captivate is a slide editor - not a total video or presentation editor (look to Adobe Premiere Pro or even Premiere Elements or Camtasia Studio for those capabilities).There is no timeline editing that extends between two slides or images in Captivate - all editing is done within a particular slide, screenshot or video timeline.

Now this layout is an advantage when users have employed the event capture routine which captures individual slides and which automatically adds captions and highlights to those slides(users can toggle this feature on or off). In this situation, Captivate proves to be one of the most powerful and fastest editors to work with among demoware creation tools. For example, Captivate provides one of the most complete set of captioning, notes, and highlighting tools. In addition adding buttons, hotspots and textfields with increasingly sophisticated actions is very easy to do in Captivate as guiding dialogs popup at the point of insertion of these learning objects. So to create a simple demo or a sophisticated learning video is well within Captivates capacity.

But with this capturing and editing innovation there are some problems. First, the timeline does not show between or across multiple slide events well. There is a special audio screen for across slide management of sounds. Second, when video capture is turned on, auto-captioning is turned off so mouse clicks and keyboard activity do not get labeled in video capture clips or sequences. Third, one can edit the video sequences adding in the captions, notes, highlights just as on a slide. But one cannot delete or edit out a portion of a video capture clip. So when doing the capture, users have to be sure to get it right and leave no dead space or wrong movements. It is fairly simple to retake the sequence and insert it into the demo as long as there is no audio narration. But the bottom line is that the mix of event and video capture is both a boon (one can get better fidelity with more compact filesize) and a bear(if you make mistakes in the capture, editing can be more complicated).

However, also realize that many of these same problems arise for event capture demoware like Qarbon's Viewlet Builder or Turbodemo. If you remove or change the duration of slides, across-the-presentation audio narration will have to be edited as well. Also many of these tools do not provide for editing between or across slides. In general, its important to note that creating good demoware is not fall-off-the-log easy; however Captivate's many thoughtful editing features do smooth the creation of good demos.

Beyond Display: Programmed Demos and Presentations

How many times have you been in the midst of a presentation and found the questions you are getting indicate that your audience wants to go somewhere else which you have anticipated but that means - stopping and restarting with a new set of slides. One reason I really like Captivate is I can program my slide shows with a branch key - and do exactly that, branch to a side issue that has become the main issue. Then either stay there or branch back to where I left off in the main presentation when the side issue is dealt with. Captivate makes that possible with its easy PowerPoint imports plus programmable hotspots and buttons. It is handling these type of programmatic experiences that distinguish Captivate.

Advanced... buttonand a more detailed Advanced Answer Options dialog appears and guides you through the process (note in the lower left the Learn more about advanced options help link). After you have filled in the blanks (or for the savvy, added JavaScript code), then hitting the Okay button causes the object to be inserted or in this case a Survey slide is inserted into the demo - all properly coded and ready to go.

So coding is kept to a minimum. However, as always with programming, there are some problems. First, Captivate allows users to employ JavaScript in any of its objects - but there is no documentation for the API with only two examples of JavaScript code in all the installation directories. Likewise when you check the Adobe Knowledgebase there are a number of JavaScript articles but none for the Captivate tool. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for Captivate's JavaScript capabilities.

Nonetheless I tried out the JavaScript creating my own browser windows as per the basic sample code and it worked. The reason I raise this point is because Captivate does not have a Stop or Exit action. So I tried a simple JavaScript: exit; - no go. So the current workaround is to go to special message slide and then to a common end slide in the demo. So to my surprise given the power and ease of use of actions and programmed objects, there are some frayed edges in Captivate.

Publishing Gamble

Captivate is taking a deliberate gamble with its publishing options. True enough, Captivate has a broad set of targets for its output:
Executable file - 3 target platforms, Linux, Mac, and Windows
Email attachment - an embedded SWF in HTML enabled email
Enterprise Connect Server - a fast way to get Breeze ... uh Adobe Enterprise Connect files operational
FTP Server - FTP to LAMP, IIS, and other servers; but make sure you know how to tie the app up
Disk file - .SWF file for use on LAN or part of CD/DVD, kiosk, and some mobiles with Flash Player
Word .doc - This is very useful way to get alternate printing documentation

Except for the surprising lack of PDF output, this is a very robust set of options. But just like Henry Ford's model T (you can have it in any color just so long as it is black); you can have Captivate in any file format just so long as it is Flash .swf format(Flash Player 6,7, or 8 - but not the most recent 9).

Now this is a bit of a gamble for Adobe and Captivate. True, Flash format has from its inception been the leader in providing a container for media: vector and bitmap images, fonts, audio, animations, and video plus code to run it all. Also Flash still provides the best compression for files with most of these media types on board. And even with just video and audio or just images, animations and text - common presentation file contents, .SWF files are frequently the most compressed and often enough by large margins.

And the Flash players are fairly small (around 2MB or less depending on deployment)and very easily downloaded. And the players run on browsers on Linux, Mac, Windows, Solaris, Symbian and other OS. And Flash has dominating and well over 90% market share on all of these platforms including Windows. Finally, Adobe's new Apollo player will allow for .SWF file support, plus PDF, plus it will run on the same range of OS while providing both online and offline operations. In short - what is the beef ? Where is the gamble ?

First, the race is on to produce the best possible video compression, and a number of parties large (Adobe, Microsoft, Intel, and others) and small (MadCap, On2, Sorensen, and others are in the race). Flash .swf does not have its familiar lead and concedes slight advantages to others when the video involves many scene changes (taking away Flash's interframe optimization advantages). True Flash .flv format often recuperates the upper hand; but then one has some extra and careful editing to do(.FLV offers some attractive options).

Also Flash .swf does not directly supports some popular graphic formats including AutoCAD .dwg(and other formats), PowerPoint .ppt (but Captivate does have very good import capabilities), most 3D modeling formats, and most of the rival video formats. Yes, you can get these converted to .FLV or .swf using third party conversion utilities. But that is an extra cost two step. Finally, .swf does not reach to some popular media players like Apple's iPod, Microsoft's Zune, Palm's Treo and others where user have to use conversion utilities from Anvsoft or Wondershare.

Before the Adobe + Macromedia merger, the technology risk was large; now it is significantly less but with major players like Microsoft alert to the danger that is Flash and Apollo (see details on Microsoft's Silverlight); the gamble that more than Flash support will be necessary is still very real. The intro of Apollo and evolution of media software containers over the next 6-12 months will tell the tale.

Meanwhile it is interesting to note that Captivate's competitors all support .swf file output (why not - it has the best cross OS platform reach and standalone plus browser usability). As well only Qarbon's Viewlet Builder and Tanida's Demobuilder provide standalone executables for Linux and Mac as well as Windows like Captivate. So may be the all.swf gamble is really a small risk.

Summary

Clearly in capturing features, editing power, programming power, and publishing - Captivate is at the head if not a step or two ahead of its competition. The range of applications that can be created with Captivate is stunning. Powerpoint presentations with branching and quizzes, sales demos with high fidelity output that can run on a wide range of platforms including Web and standalone. Simple training tips quickly rendered in a fast response help environ, to polished system demos and training courses with printed handouts or getting started guides and strong links to your Learning Management System. Captivate does have some rough edges; but no other demoware tool comes close to its breadth and depth of features and capabilities.

More importantly, Captivate is a platform beyond just screencast demos. It is a robust, programmatic presentation platform that takes PowerPoint et alia to a new level because it can incorporate Powerpoint (or Open Office Impression presentations) with screen captures, images, animations, and videos(the full media gamut)- combine these with quizzes and surveys to create great online or offline learning experiences. Yes, there is some overlap with Authoware and Director Mx. But Captivate takes demos to a new level of eLearning.




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