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An Interview with Don Brittain

Interviewed By: Geetesh Bajaj

Date Created: August 31st 2006
Last Updated: March 3rd 2009

Don BrittainDon Brittain is CEO and a founder of Instant Effects, a California company that develops software to visually enhance presentations, communications, and collaboration.

Dr. Brittain has designed commercial interactive graphics software for more than two decades, having been VP Research at Wavefront Technologies and one of the principal architects of 3dsmax from Autodesk prior to helping found Instant Effects more than four years ago.

Brittain has a personal interest in bringing the power of interactive computing and visual communication into mainstream use. He holds eight patents in interactive graphics and has a PhD in Mathematics from the University of Pennsylvania.

Geetesh: Tell us more about how OfficeFX evolved -- how did you get started with this.

Don: The founders of Instant Effects come from a background in high-end special effects and 3D animation software.  This software is used by production studios to communicate emotion, information and excitement within movies, games, and TV commercials.

With the advent of advanced, yet inexpensive, 3D graphics hardware, we saw a way to address the desire “the rest of us” have to use similar high-impact graphics to improve the visual effectiveness of our PowerPoint presentations. So, we formed Instant Effects in 2002, and that’s when OfficeFX was born.

Geetesh: As advanced graphic capabilities get mainstream, almost any PowerPoint user could be using OfficeFX -- so how do you view this expanded user base in the future -- and how do you believe they should look at OfficeFX so that they can benefit most from it.

Don: Although advanced consumer graphics hardware has been around for years, most business computers are just now gaining the necessary graphics horsepower to run OfficeFX. Thus, we’re still in the “early adopter” stage, and hence the impact when giving an OfficeFX-enhanced presentation right now is quite high, even when the underlying presentation is not as well thought-out as it should be.

Of course, that will change in the near future when interactive dynamic graphics become standard faire for almost all presentations. At that point, the graphics will only be effective if used to appropriately complement, augment, and enhance the presentation.

In more detail, the same way we have evolved highly effective language skills by talking to each other everyday, we have also mastered an efficient visual communication language by watching visual media like TV and movies. The challenge will be learning how to effectively express ourselves using that language since most of us are only on the receiving end of dynamic visual communications today.

Geetesh: Although many products add cutting edge graphics to PowerPoint content, they really cannot add content -- if there's no content, there nothing left to be made compelling -- so how can users be educated about this?

Don: OfficeFX provides visual impact to PowerPoint content, and if the content is lacking, there’s not much OfficeFX can do. You may end up with a lot of “sizzle”, but we can’t magically create the “steak”.

One of the key ideas in Cliff Atkinson’s excellent book Beyond Bullet Points is that a good presentation tells a story. Here’s where OfficeFX can shine, since Hollywood has been using visual effects to enhance story telling for decades. When your talk couples a good story with a visually-compelling way to tell it, you end up with a great presentation.

Geetesh: Can you share some success stories of using OfficeFX.

Don: One success we’re particularly proud of involved a high-level executive at a Fortune 100 company giving a keynote at an interactive media conference in Europe. For this important talk, the “story” was almost completely written before OfficeFX was introduced. Based on the story, a custom OfficeFX theme was designed to visually delineate and accent the talk’s main points. The keynote was very well received and variations were presented at several subsequent events. Based on the success of this family of presentations, the CEO of the same company gave a major keynote (on a completely different topic) using OfficeFX early the next year.

We’re also proud of the fact that OfficeFX has been well received at major product and program launches. These are often “million dollar days” where quality and results mean everything, so the demands on the visual output are quite high. People are often shocked to find that OfficeFX, running on a single PC, is the “wizard behind the curtain”, rather than an army of AV professionals using expensive real-time event production hardware.

Geetesh: What does the future hold for OfficeFX -- what can users look forward to seeing in the near future.

Don: Although products that enhance PowerPoint’s graphics have been around for ages, OfficeFX is the first product to completely render PowerPoint content in an interactive, dynamic media environment.

The power related to that paradigm shift is enormous. For example, OfficeFX can be extended through custom themes to carry a company’s dynamic logos, brands, and colors consistently throughout a presentation on both the slides as well as the transitions. Once such a theme is developed, any number of presentations can be created quickly that have the same corporate identity and high-impact visual appeal.

Future versions of OfficeFX will build on this foundation by providing users with more extension and customization options. In turn, this will allow for more effective story telling and hence better, more compelling presentations.

We will also be enhancing the ability of our FXD files to extend the power, portability, and functionality of this media (which is authored with OfficeFX Professional).

Geetesh: Can you share some trivia with Indezine readers -- an unconventional use of OfficeFX, an amusing anecdote, or just something you want to tell them.

Don: When you’re the first to venture into a new, emerging market, it’s interesting to see where “experts” are right and where they sometimes miss the mark.

In the early days of Instant Effects, we were led to believe that we’d have to “start near the bottom” in a large company, and work our way up to having senior management use OfficeFX.

That has turned out to be backwards in many cases. Senior executives give more talks where the leading-edge reputation of their company is at stake, and hence OfficeFX is readily embraced. Once blessed by senior management, middle management follows suit, and we see a filter down, rather than a “work our way up”, effect.

In another instance, a senior US government official overseeing the military expressed interest in OfficeFX, and suddenly a set of generals also expressed interest in our software!

Of course, the opposite is true in other cases. For example, we have had a few “loner” early adopters who started using OfficeFX to their advantage well before some of the larger companies had even started their formal evaluations.

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