Techniques: Off the Shelf

Make your charts and graphs as animated as Saturday-morning TV shows

If your company's Web site strikes even you as tired, Astound may be a tool you need. This software helps you create lively interactive presentations with animation, sound, and video.

As a civil engineer, I am far from technophobic, but I do know the limits of my computer knowledge. So I recruited the company's chief engineer to help me install the CD-ROM­based program on our PC. The Getting Started manual guided us through the initial steps of the installation, but even my experts had no choice but to phone Astound when we ran into trouble.

Only after spending 25 minutes on hold--there is no toll-free service--did we learn that even though Astound was written to run with Windows NT Workstation 4.0, which we have on our network, NT Workstation 4.0 is incompatible with Astound's built-in file-transfer protocol (FTP). That explained why the transfer program crashed when we tried to post our Astound presentation on our Web page.

Generally, however, the program works as promised. It comes with several demos that do a fine job presenting Astound's features, and before long, we were ready to develop an electronic slide show of our own.

In less time than we spent waiting for technical support, we developed a series of animated slides that showed our company's revenue growth over the past few years. Airplanes, balls, bars, and the like--figures Astound calls "actors"--seemed to come to life, virtually dancing across our sales chart when we assigned them particular "paths." And why settle for a sleepy caption at the bottom of your chart when you can have descriptive text flying around the screen? We were so captivated by Astound's capabilities that we actually overanimated our presentation just to see the effects. Your challenge will be to modernize your presentations without overwhelming them with special effects.

The multimedia capabilities are neat. They let you embed live-action video or even sound into your slides. What's more, Astound lets you hyperlink your slides to one another or to other URLs.

Astound can certainly liven up your computer-based presentations, making them attractive additions to your company's Web site. Because of the FTP incompatibility, we weren't able to publish our Astound presentation on our Web site, but we do wonder whether the low bandwidth of most modems would cripple the performance of Astound's glitzy, full-action video and sound playback. Extended downloading might well kill what Astound so convincingly brings to life.

The Product
Astound 4.0, from Astound Inc., Palo Alto, CA (415-845-6200; $249), software for creating animated computer presentations

Judith Nitsch, president of Judith Nitsch Engineering Inc., an eight-year-old consulting, engineering, and land-surveying firm in Boston

486 PC, 20 MB hard-disk space, Windows 95 or NT, 8 MB RAM (16 MB recommended)