Do you remember when "print it out from the computer" meant endless streams of fan-folded pages, full of not-dark-enough numbers and letters, each character a little constellation of quite noticeable dots? You would never send a business letter or a resume that way: It was just too ugly and hard to read. Any document that mattered was typed or printed on a slow, expensive "letter-quality" printer.
Then came the laser printer. It killed the typewriter and the letter-quality printer because it was faster, quieter and produced superior-quality prints. It let you add graphics to pages as well, which led to desk-top publishing.
A similar revolution is about to occur in presentations.
By this time next year, a presentation will need "motion." A raft of new programs lets you animate elements of your charts and slides. (They cannot create the charts from numeric data, though.) To see this motion, you'll have to display your visuals on the computer screen (or project them from the computer to a larger screen), but that restriction is trifling for the benefits. Because they are so much more captivating than standard presentations, they are often referred to as "movies."
Action! (Macromind Paracomp, (415) 442-0200, $495) runs under Windows on PCs. In Action! you'll create scenes, each lasting from a few seconds to more than a minute. Within each scene, you'll specify the "actors" (the objects that will move). These objects can be the charts you imported from the main presentation program or they may be things you draw in Action! Then you add a background, such as a color gradient.
You tell actors when and where to enter, hold and exit. For the entrance and exit, you specify a transition effect, such as a wipe or dissolve.
There are special windows that display the actors or the entire presentation as a sequence of scenes (to let you rearrange the order of scenes). In most of these, you can easily change your presentation just by clicking the mouse on a representative picture icon and then dragging that icon.
As with most animated presentation packages, Action! also lets you synchronize sounds to the motions on screen. And it can transform any object into a "button" on screen that you can link to another scene or to a sound that lets you build interactive presentations.
There are 100 "templates" packed with Action! These are neatly designed and organized presentations complete with sound and motion -- all you need to do is substitute your particular objects and sounds for the place holders.
I like Action's templates and its direct manipulation of objects and timing. It's good for animating text charts and graphs. I don't like Action's paucity of animation techniques, its inability to animate objects on a path or to rotate or scale them as they move. Nor do I like its limited technical support. After 90 days, you pay $150 a year, making this a $650 program.
Magic (Macromind Paracomp, (415) 442-0200, $395) is a Macintosh program that comes from the company that makes Action! Like Action!, Magic has templates ready for your customization.
Magic is more fluent with graphics. It contains a simple drawing program that lets you create actors and backgrounds. Then you choose from six modes -- draw, shape, move, pan, mask and run -- to put those actors through their paces. You can draw a path -- any line -- and Magic will move your actor along that path. The pan mode lets you "keyhole," moving a background against an actor.
Before running your presentation, you may add transition effects and sounds. Magic contains several megabytes of "clip media," a collection of sounds, art and animation, including some impressive 3-D objects. And you may turn actors into interactive buttons.
Macromind permits you to distribute your movies inside your company or commercially, without paying royalties. The QuickPICS utility that comes with Magic can compress finished movies to store and play them efficiently.
I like Magic's templates and its way with graphics -- I'd definitely choose it over Action! for scenes with characters or many moving parts. And I like that direct control of objects, the keyholing and the QuickPICS playbacks, without royalties. But Magic falls short even in the graphics area when compared with the next program.
Cinemation (Vividus, (415) 494-2111, $495) has templates just as Action! and Magic do. However, these templates add the ability to directly import and animate PowerPoint or Persuasion files, the most popular Macintosh presentation packages. Cinemation comes with 12 megabytes of clip media and a 24-bit paint program.
Cinemation can animate objects along a path, as Action or Magic can, but it can also rotate, scale and crop the object as it moves along the path, which they cannot. And along the path, Cinemation can use "inertia control" to make objects appear to accelerate or be affected by gravity.
The "ghosting" option in the paint program lets you create an animation one "cel" at a time, just as traditional hand-drawing animators would. And the "record" button command brings animation down to its simplest level: draw a frame, record it, draw the next frame, record it and so on.
Cinemation is good with text, great with graphics, better able to import presentations than Action! or Magic and full of animation features. About the only things I didn't like about it were a big hunger for memory (get at least 4 megabytes) and the policy on commercial use of your Cinemation finished movies: You must negotiate for a royalty rate.
Mr. Robinson is an author of books and articles about computers and an editor for Virtual Information of Sausalito, Calif.