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An Interview with Tom Atkins

In this interview, Tom talks about Vox Proxy, Microsoft Agent, and more.

Thomas G Atkins was educated as a chemical engineer, obtained his bachelor's degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and his Master of Science degree from the University ofCalifornia at Berkeley.

Having lived on both coasts, Tom settled in Colorado in the early 70's, and in Golden ten years ago. He has developed computer software applications for more than thirty years, specializing in the APL language. Tom has served as chairman of the Jefferson County Library Board of Trustees. He and his wife Alice are very much "new urbanists", operating their business out of a carriage house Tom built behind their home in downtown Golden. They enjoy walking to lunch, the bank, and shops in their adopted home town.

Tom heads Right Seat Software, creators of the amazing Vox Proxy add-in for Microsoft PowerPoint.

Geetesh: How would you describe Vox Proxy?

Tom: My "elevator description" for Vox Proxy is "3-D Talking animated characters for PowerPoint". It consists of both authoring and playback modules that integrate with PowerPoint through an add-in. The add-in provides a Vox Proxy menu in PowerPoint and allows you to develop character scripts side-by-side with your slides. The script-writing features are extremely user-friendly, with extensive wizards for click-simple selections in all script commands.

Geetesh: Tell us more about Microsoft Agent and the other technologies that work behind the scenes in Vox Proxy.

Tom: Vox Proxy uses a number of ActiveX technologies, including Microsoft Agent. ActiveX has gotten kind of a bad rap because of security issues with Outlook and web pages. But it's a wonderful facility for communicating with off-line Office applications like PowerPoint where security really isn't an issue. The MS Agent ActiveX control has been a standard feature of Windows since 98SE. Other third-party applications include email and clipboard readers, but with Vox Proxy, we have realized one of its natural strengths as a presenter's assistant in PowerPoint slide shows.

PowerPoint too has an extensive ActiveX object model, which is what allows Vox Proxy to integrate closely with it. We also support playing audio and video through the Microsoft Media Player, which allows us to provide features not otherwise available in PowerPoint, like fading volume controls and timers to coordinate characters with media. Other media scripting features include Flash movies.

Although the new viewer included with PowerPoint 2003 is an excellent slide show player, it does not contain an ActiveX model. But we have succeeded in creating our own interface for the next release of Vox Proxy to fully support the 2003 viewer.

More sophisticated users can create interactive quizzes and questionnaires that read and write data files and interactive Excel spread sheets, where characters can read and write individual cells and react to changes made by the user.

And finally, VP supports Microsoft's Speech API along with Text-To-Speech engines so that characters can not only speak from their script text, but also respond to voice commands from the user.

Geetesh: What is Vox Proxy's greatest benefit, and which areas of society do you think can benefit from Vox Proxy?

Tom: The benefits of Vox Proxy generally fall into two areas, one for presentations that are delivered live and the other for self-running presentations.

For live presentations, the benefit is to draw special attention to certain points to make a greater impact on the audience. Vox Proxy provides the presenter with characters to act as avatar assistants for that purpose. The character can pop up at some point in the presentation to ask a question, for example. Then the presenter can carry on a scripted conversation with the character to help explain something. And the character can be imbued with a personality to add humor, act as a straight-man, or otherwise assist in focusing the audience's attention. Another example was given to me by a customer at the PowerPoint Live conference last fall. She often travels alone for her company, giving PowerPoint presentations by herself, so she has a character introduce her to the audience and give some background before she actually enters the room, ending with "Oh, I think I see Helena now. Let's give her a nice warm welcome!"

For self-running presentations like training, marketing, and so on, a Vox Proxy character can be a natural on-screen presenter. As an alternative to the typical read-and-click metaphor, people seem to respond so much better to someone (even an avatar) actually explaining things to them, pointing out important elements on the slides, displaying examples and so on. Other self-running applications include, for example, a human-resources presentation where the characters show pictures of employees while talking about them and explaining departmental procedures and other issues.

Finally, Vox Proxy is heavily used in schools. Teachers report that kids react extremely well to the on-screen talking characters, and in middle schools, kids are using it themselves to develop self-narrated presentations. It also gives language teachers another fun way to let kids script and listen to speech in multiple languages.

Geetesh: When do you think Vox Proxy should not be used?

Tom: Well, for one thing, it should not be used to perpetuate poor presentation techniques. For example, it would be simple to have the characters simply read bulleted text on slides. But it's a poor presentation technique, so we don't even offer that as a feature.

Beyond things like that, as with any tool, it should not be over-used, particularly in a live presentation.

Geetesh: How did you get around to creating this amazing application?

Tom: When I first became aware of Microsoft Agent technology in 1997, I couldn't believe that the best thing Microsoft could come up with for it was the Office Assistant, which manages to annoy more people that it pleases. PowerPoint seemed like a natural for it, but I had to wait until the ActiveX object model was enhanced in PowerPoint 2000 to really integrate it nicely. Then I just took two years off to design the application and write the code which, by the way, is not in Visual Basic, but in APL, a highly productive language originally developed by IBM.

Geetesh: How do you collaborate with Microsoft, and are you happy with the level of interaction?

Tom: The short answer is that I don't. Although I participate in Microsoft's excellent "Empower ISP" program, I've never had much luck communicating with them, especially on a technical level.

Geetesh: It's become quite fashionable to criticize PowerPoint for everything - from the space shuttle disaster to failed board meetings. What do you think?

Tom: I'm glad you asked that, Geetesh! In my view, the critics are still trying to "shoot the messenger". In fact, they're sniping at the messenger from behind a rock. It's so easy for them - first, people love to hate Microsoft. No risk for them there. And second, they avoid criticizing the PEOPLE who are giving these presentations, putting the focus instead on the tools they're using. But anyone can take a professional set of tools and build a lousy house. Since you mention the Columbia disaster, it's my opinion that any decent PowerPoint user could have put together a great presentation using color and graphics that would have had a much better chance of stopping that launch.

In short, these critics don't have the intellectual fortitude to put the blame where it belongs: on the presenters themselves. They'd rather act like compassionate supporters and absolve the poor presenters by blaming it on their toolbox. Phooey. Let's take responsibility for our own stuff!