Seven Projects to Stretch Your Digital Wings: Part Two

9/11/09Follow @wroush

Whether the fall is back-to-school season for you or not, there’s always more to learn. In last week’s column I outlined three fun weekend projects involving new technologies for digital self-expression. My suggestions covered art (digital “finger painting” with an iPhone app called Brushes), writing (“lifestreaming” with Posterous and Friendfeed), and photography (building three-dimensional photographic spaces with Photosynth). This week I’ve got two more digital projects in mind for you, this time in the areas of podcasting and computer animation. Next week, I’ll finish up with maps and virtual worlds.

I’m writing this three-part column because I think it’s an exciting time for anyone who’s interested in consumer-level digital media tools. Not only are we seeing a profusion of inexpensive new gadgets for capturing media—witness Apple’s announcement Wednesday that the new iPod Nano will have a built-in digital video camera—but there are also many new Web-based services where creators can edit, enhance, share, and promote their media creations. The only way to keep up with all these new technologies is just to jump in and try them. So let’s get back to it:

4. Become an Amateur Podcaster with AudioBoo

When podcasting first took off four or five years ago, most podcasters tried to emulate radio hosts, kitting out their podcasts with fancy musical intros and outros and other audio goodies. Just to experiment with podcasting, you needed a pricey microphone and recording rig, audio editing software, and a working knowledge of RSS, iTunes, and other distribution methods. But thanks to a bit of good old technological progress, the barriers are now much lower. In fact, producing a podcast these days can be just about as easy as making a phone call. Which means that dictating a few off-the-cuff thoughts on your mobile device and uploading them to the Web is becoming a realistic alternative to blogging and other more familar forms of Web-based communication.

This is precisely the point of AudioBoo, a UK-based service that I profiled in July. If you live in the UK (or if you’re willing to splurge on an international phone call), you can call AudioBoo from any phone and record some thoughts, then publish the the recording straight to AudioBoo.fm, which is basically a giant community audio blog featuring recordings or “boos” from all AudioBoo users.

But if you have an iPhone, you can use the nifty AudioBoo app to do the same thing, without the phone calls or the attendant charges. The app has a voice recording function that lets you talk for up to five minutes. It then uses your wireless data connection to upload the finished boo to the AudioBoo.fm, along with a photograph and a map of your location, if you wish. Fans can listen to your boos at the site, or they can subscribe and get new boos delivered via RSS or iTunes. The AudioBoo site also provides some handy code that you can use to embed your boos in your blog.

In fact, by doing a bit of social media marketing to promote your boos, you could turn AudioBoo into your own personal audio publishing empire. Somewhat to my surprise, I haven’t come across anyone who’s doing this yet; and when the amateur podcasting phenomenon really hits the mainstream, it may be some other tool, rather than AudioBoo, that people fall in love with. But you can definitely see from AudioBoo where the technology is going.

You can listen to my first boo here. It’s worth mentioning that there’s another super-easy way to publish audio on the Web. Remember the lifestreaming site Posterous, which I talked about last week? You can publish a mini-podcast to your Posterous site simply by making a recording on your mobile device (for example, using the iPhone’s built-in Voice Memo app), then e-mailing it to post@posterous.com. Within minutes, the clip will show up in your lifestream inside a nice little audio player widget.

5. Create a Short Animated Film with Xtranormal

From audio to the visual: In January, I wrote about a Canadian startup called Xtranormal that’s pioneering an intriguing idea that it calls “text-to-movie.” If you write some dialogue and insert some stage directions, Xtranormal will generate a whole computer-animated cartoon enacting your story. You can check out my first attempt at an Xtranormal movie here:

Starting your own cinematic career at Xtranormal is easy. You first have to pick from one of six “worlds” or settings. They range from the sterile, black-and-white office environment I used in my movie (it’s great for sarcastic comedy sketches) to a retro-futuristic cartoon world called Robotz. Next, you decide whether you want one or two “actors” in your movie.

Xtranormal then opens a script-writing interface where you input some dialogue and click on buttons to insert basic instructions for the characters, such as when they should smile or grimace or wave their arms. You can also control the pacing of your scene by inserting pauses, deciding when the virtual “camera” should zoom in on a character’s face, and the like. You can run through the movie as you build it, listening to the characters’ computer-generated voices to see if you’ve got the timing right.

When you’ve got everything looking and sounding just the way you want it, you can tell Xtranormal to render a final copy, which you can then publish to YouTube or embed in your blog. It’s a great way to make an animated movie without having to learn anything about computer graphics, stop-motion filming, or the like. Of course, your finished episode will only be as good as your scriptwriting. And this first generation of text-to-movie tools does have its limitations—notably the synthesized voices, which lack much human inflection. But the technology is already good enough that, again, it’s easy to imagine where it might be going in the future. For an example of an Xtranormal episode that’s pretty well written and makes amusing use of the existing tools, check out “Kung Fu Flick.”

When I first wrote about Xtranormal, the animation platform was entirely free, and the company still lets you make two-character movies in the six basic worlds for free. But since then, the company has introduced a new premium membership level that, for $5 a month or $40 a year, will let you make longer movies and select from more characters and worlds. Xtranormal says it’s also working on a downloadable moviemaking program for Windows and Mac computers, called State, that will really put you in the director’s chair. You’ll be able to include up to three characters in a scene and make them walk around the world, and you’ll be able to add your own music and control the placement of the camera. Calling the next Hitchcock!

Continue to Part Three

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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