Have Xtra Fun Making Movies with Xtranormal
This week’s column comes partly in the form of a digital cartoon. Click on the play button below to watch it. (Or if you’re reading this story via an RSS feed or e-mail newsletter, click this link to view the video—then come back here).
Clever, eh? Of course, it’s just fiction. I still have a job here at Xconomy—as far as I know. But if I ever lose it, maybe I’ll hitchhike to Montreal and apply for a position at Xtranormal, the startup that created the Web-based movie maker I used to create the video.
Xtranormal, which is funded by Cambridge’s Fairhaven Capital, was founded in 2006 and emerged from stealth mode about a year ago at the Demo 08 conference in San Diego. (You can watch vice president Paul Nightingale’s six-minute Demo presentation here). The basic idea—automated synchronization of synthesized speech with animated, 3-D avatars—has been around since the early 2000s. If you don’t remember the green-haired virtual newscaster Ananova, here’s a link to some archival video. But Xtranormal’s innovation has been to put the same technology into the hands of average Web users—letting them produce and direct their own little 3-D movies.
It’s a great idea that strikes the same chord as some other new consumer tools for creating and remixing digital media—Animoto, which assembles high-energy animated slide shows with musical backgrounds from your digital photos, being one of my current favorites. Xtranormal’s easy-to-use toolkit of commands and its endearing cartoon people give it the feel of a big Lego set for adults. I made the clip above in an hour or two just by choosing a backdrop, a couple of characters, and some basic camera angles and gestures from Xtranormal’s large menu of options, then writing some dialogue. The script doubles as an interactive storyboard; Xtranormal has developed a clever drag-and-drop interface for inserting pauses, facial expressions, and camera angle changes.
As Xtranormal puts it, “If you can type, you can make movies.” And there are people using Xtranormal in some pretty entertaining ways—for examples, check out Deadpan Inc., Howard and Leslie, and Rejected Jokes. To quote website Lifehacker, it’s “a seriously addictive sandbox for crafting miniature dramas, comedies, or whatever you can tell your little actors to do.”
Although Nightingale talked in his demo about using the tool to build business presentations or daily Web talk shows, I’m not convinced that the service, at least in its current form, has any serious business, educational, or media applications. Those may be coming down the road, as the company gives users access to tools for building customized avatars and laying in their own voice tracks rather than relying on the software’s speech synthesizer.
For now, Xtranormal is simply a heckuva lot of fun, which is enough for me. Better yet, it’s free, at least for now—though there are indications that this won’t last forever, and that Xtranormal plans eventually to sell credits that users can apply toward publishing movies.
Xtranormal’s About page calls the democratization of movie-making “a massive business opportunity,” and Nightingale talked at Demo about additional revenue possibilities for the company, such as interactive marketing—think exclusive worlds where content owners (say, Pepsi or Honda or Universal Studios) give visitors digitized movie characters or branded props from which to build their own movies.
But apparently, these types of marketing deals aren’t materializing quite fast enough. According to this report in the Vancouver, BC-based blog TechVibes, the company was forced to lay off 36 people, or about half of its staff, back in November. There have also been complaints from users about performance issues, including long waits for Xtranormal’s servers to show their previews and finished movies (though I didn’t experience that problem myself). And the downloadable version of the Xtranormal movie generator promised by Nightingtale last January is, so far, nowhere to be seen.
I hope the company gets through its current rough patch, because it’s developed a fun and intuitive tool that, with a few more features, could provide the palette for a new generation of home movies by creative amateurs. Given the graphics-processing power of today’s home computers, you shouldn’t have to be CGI professional or machinima hacker to produce nice-looking animations.
Of course, I’m not about to put down my writer’s pen. At least, not until an avatar pries it out of my cold, dead fingers.
(Addendum, 1/19/09: Talk about coincidences. Last night somebody from Xtranormal left the following comment over on the YouTube page for my Richard & Simon video: “Great stuff. Did you know that Simon & Richard are the product designers/managers for Xtranormal? Nuts. Nice write-up too. We are going through a rough patch, but we’re going to pull out of it and it’s gonna be FUN.”)
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