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An Interview with Lou Douros

In this interview, Lou discusses Freepath, PowerPoint, and non-linear presentations.

Lou Douros has many years of experience in media production and presentation, business development, and product design. He previously served as a staff producer for Fresh Air Media,Auburn, California, where he was assigned the responsibility of creating a user model and ultimately a business plan to address the demands of real-time presentation needs. Lou was the first interaction designer for the Prologue family of presentation products, Worship Leader and later SundayPlus, entries into the house of worship market which moved quickly to a top position.

As President of Grass Roots Software, Lou's primary role is in securing partnerships to advance the use of Grass Roots Software technology in a broad range of vertical markets and business to business solutions.

Geetesh: Tell us about yourself and Grass Roots Software?

Lou: We are a company of entrepreneurs. We are a small, privately-held company. CEO and co-founder, John Schultheiss and I have tried to build a culture that can survive business the old-fashioned way: creating useful products, then helping people to buy them.

We are located in Grass Valley, CA, in the Sierra Foothills. Grass Valley is a charming, small town with lots of high tech. We share the same grocery stores as the likes of Telestream, Grass Valley Group, AJA Video and others. More and more talented professionals are choosing this area as a place to settle down to flee the heavy brown skies of the big cities and decompress in breathable airspace. The Grass Roots team is made up of around a dozen developers, support, sales and marketing people.

We have succeeded as a bootstrap start-up by asking, "What are the problems we can do something about?" Then we have tried to stay focused with the means we have to pull it off. Freepath is a perfect example of a product that came from a common problem: presenting multimedia to a live audience. I call it "multimedia improv". At the podium with a live audience, a speaker's comprehension becomes limited. Tunnel vision at its best. So the software needs to communicate a lot in a little amount of space. Our visual interface is one way we've provided light in the tunnel.

Geetesh: Tell us more about how Freepath evolved and how the response to the product has been?

Lou: Freepath evolved from an interaction design challenge we feel we solved with our earlier product. "SundayPlus ". People who present in an environment that isn't conducive to linear storytelling need a "nonlinear" presenter. Some of our house of worship customers are now among the most progressive multimedia creators and presenters in the marketplace because they're free to access their ideas on-the-fly.

We started by looking at PowerPoint 95. We saw a great product that had lost the presenter because of the mirror image on both computer and projector. Windows 95 had dual display, but Microsoft only just started pushing it. Most of our early tech support was helping customers set up the dual displays. Now Freepath even does the monitor setup for you.

I recently read an article by Bill Gates about his work flow. He led off with his description of dual monitors. "Finally," I thought, "now we'll start getting tech support from Redmond on that one!"

Today we look at our marketing universe not demographically, but by use scenarios. Grass Roots products are the tools communicators use for live, face to face meetings and live web meetings. Freepath is completely compatible with GoToMeeting and its sibling software programs. You can present one minute from your laptop over the Web, then run down the hall and show the same Freepath presentation in the conference room.

Geetesh: Freepath takes a new approach in enhancing PowerPoint's abilities using the playlist metaphor. What made you decide on this route and what advantages do you see in using PowerPoint presentations and other content this way?

Lou: Well, most obviously, we try to make our cues into large clickable targets. That is, if you drop a digital image into the list, the actual image thumbnail is what you single-click to send it to the audience. Since we're a nonlinear presenter, you can click anywhere in the playlist to show multimedia.

As for PowerPoint, we open each file in a slide "chooser" window. Soon the presenter view you can see each slide just as it would look to the audience. Although Microsoft does this in dual mode, Freepath will let you open many chooser windows at once giving you point and click from any slide to another, even between .PPT files.

We say that Freepath makes ordinary files "presentable". For example, PDF's, Word documents and Excel spreadsheets aren't often thought of as being shown in the middle of PowerPoint presentations. Likewise, the Web is considered to be more of a research tool than presentation tool. Freepath allows any website to be presentation content.

Geetesh: Tell us more about your other product SundayPlus?

Lou: Back in the day, as they say, churches used business software to project hymns and sermon notes. Now, many churches are highly improvisational. SundayPlus was the first software program to give media directors a visual display on two monitors. There are others that are modeled more after PowerPoint or make their cues highly text descriptive.

SundayPlus falls under that "live, face to face" use and will be based on the Freepath engine in the future. What started as a niche design has taken us into a very broad set of potential uses.

Geetesh: What sort of support infrastructure do you have in place for your products?

Lou: Of course our goal is to make software that never needs support. For example, Freepath manages your monitors for you. We've minimized what used to be our number one tech call for assistance: setting up dual displays.

We offer 30 days of free support. Beyond that we sell annual support at $75 per seat. That includes phone support and a self-service, online help desk.

Geetesh: Can you share some trivia - perhaps an unconventional use of Freepath or something similar? Or just something you want to share with Indezine readers?

Lou: Freepath has been out for a week now at this writing. We expect some pretty heroic uses. As we did with the house of worship market, we intend to see a huge improvement in story-telling for Freepath customers. Nancy Duarte said in her interview with you, "PowerPoint doesn't kill ideas, people who don't know how to use it or presen well are what kill ideas." We don't want to get blamed for bad presentations either.

Today, people are launching Adobe Acrobat Reader, PowerPoint, Windows Movie Player and Word and Alt-tabbing at presentation time. Freepath will let you access your presentable content within a couple clicks behind the scenes, rather than a tour of your desktop while your audience watches.

Lastly, one of the greatest human fears is that of looking stupid. Simpler access to useful multimedia creates courage. We'd love to see your readers raise the bar for great digital storytelling.