Online Collaboration For The Creative Industry - Rich-Media Annotation Is Here With Octopz
Online collaboration tools tend to focus on the sharing of presentations and corporate communications, leaving those working in the creative industry settling for second-best. But a new tool targeting designers, photographers, marketing creatives and even film-makers is about to change all of that.
Making it easy to meet online and annotate images, 3D panoramas, documents, video, and multimedia files with an intuitive toolset and no need to download a thing, Octopz looks set to make some serious waves.
Octopz was made by creative professionals, for creative professionals, and it shows.
Using a great-looking, totally browser-based meeting space, users can quickly and easily share, discuss and annotate just about any media file out there. In addition to a range of simple, intuitive annotation tools, Octopz meetings are supported by both Voice-Over IP and web-cam for synchronous communication, and commenting and message-board functionality for asynchronous collaboration.
Thanks to a foundation in Flash technology there is no need to download a thing - if you have a browser with the Flash plug-in (as 98% of you do) you are ready to collaborate through Octopz, whether you are running the Windows, Mac or Linux operating system.
In my full review of this creative collaboration tool I take a look at:
- The simple toolset and interface designed so that anyone can be up and running in the space of minutes
- The annotation of rich-media files made possible with Octopz, so that you can leave notes and visual annotations even on single frames of video, and instantly jump back to them with a click of the mouse
- The ease of sharing made capable through Octopz, allowing you to invite anyone, anywhere to join you in a meeting with a single click
- The pricing and options available for independent producers, SoHo customers and Enterprise users
Octopz - Creative Collaboration
Octopz is a total collaboration solution targeted primarily, although not exclusively, at individuals and companies working in the creative industry. It facilitates quick easy meetings of groups of up to five in number, and provides an intuitive collection of tools for the easy annotation and manipulation of most common media files.
The elegant Flash-based user interface is a pleasure to use, and offers an intuitive online workspace. With the ability to join up to five colleagues at any one time, or to work individually at your own pace, Octopz allows for the iterative process so common in the creative industry. Designers can work side by side to present their work, and have a client come along later in the day and leave their thoughts on the results, all from the same application.
The people behind Octopz come from a photography and digital imaging background, and their understanding of the needs of creative professionals shines through in the capabilities of the tool. Featuring a familiar tool-set and navigation, support for a range of media and a work-flow that accounts for both live meetings and individual review, Octopz excels at streamlining the creative process.
The User Interface
The Octopz interface is minimal and well-designed, and was conceived with usability in mind above all else. Everything is right where you would expect it to be, and while the tools available are diverse, they don't swamp the user with options. Furthermore, the window that the application opens up into is entirely scalable, so you can drag it to whichever dimensions suit you best, or have it fill the screen if that is preferable.
The uncluttered design features a list of attendees and media files on the left-hand side, and it is from here that files are uploaded and selected.
In the spirit of democracy, there is no complex system of handing over control to other meeting participants. If you want to make a change, you simply click on your name in the users list, and control is handed over to you just like that.
This makes a change from the usual presenter-audience model, whereby one person oversees proceedings and assigns control to other participants as they see fit. Given that the maximum group size for an Octopz session is five people, I don't see this approach being problematic, and quite to the contrary think that it is well-suited to the collaborative process.
Running along the bottom of the screen, underneath the main workspace, is an instant messaging chat box, controls to turn your web-cam and microphone on or off, and a space in which web-cam video is displayed should attendees choose to use it.
Finally, to the right of the workspace, which rightfully dominates the lion's share of screen real estate, is a simple toolbar, with easily recognizable icons for the editing and mark-up tools you will use in your Octopz sessions. The tools available are:
- A magnifying glass which allows you to zoom in or out of the media files you are working on, either incrementally or by the use of a marquee tool, as familiar to anyone that works with graphics applications
- A hand tool that allows you to grab and move your media files around the workspace, just as you can with images in desktop graphic editing programs
- A pen tool with which you can make freehand annotations to your media files. Color and line width can be changed to taste
- A line tool with the same control parameters as the pen tool
- Shape tools in square and circular variations, with both line and fill options
- A text tool, for writing directly onto your media files
- A note tool for quickly creating comments on the fly, each of which has a time-stamp and displays your user name next to it on a post-it style note
- A selection tool for selecting more than one item from your annotation graphics
This familiar set of tools make it easy to get started right away, and in no time you will be zooming, positioning, and in the case of 3D images rotating your media files, and adding notes, scribbles and text for your colleagues and clients.
In that you can work on your projects synchronously, supported by web-cam and integrated VoIP, or asynchronously, all annotations and notes are archived. Every time a fresh annotation is made, a new file appears in the documents and views sidebar, which you can rename for the sake of clarity. Colleagues and clients can then view your notes at their leisure, and with the use of the note tool it is possible for them to leave time-stamped annotations. This could prove particularly useful for time-sensitive projects where collaborators are not able to meet up in real-time.
One of the things that really sets Octopz apart is its sheer range. I am not limited to marking up text documents or photographs, but can instead make use of the same easy-to-use tools when working with video or rich multimedia files, such as Flash animations or applications.
The principle is the same regardless of the media I am working with - original files are converted into the Flash SWF format for editing, so that the original document or media file is never altered or harmed in the marking-up process.
This allows for quite some flexibility, as I can manipulate my media files, adding notes, freehand annotations and text directly to them without having to worry about ruining the original copies. What's great is that every time I annotate my media files, a new file is generated, effectively creating a snapshot not only of my annotations, but also the on-screen position and zoom level I had set at that exact point in time.
Let's say I was working with a 3D panorama, made up of a series of photographs stitched together. I am free to rotate the object in the Octopz viewer, to zoom in or out of the object and to add my notes. As soon as I make my annotation, a new file is created capturing all of these parameters.
I can now move the object, rotate it, adjust the level of zoom - and with a single click I can jump back to all of the parameters of my previous annotation. Every time I make a change, add a note or highlight something with my on-screen pen tool, another file is created, and added to the list of documents, nested underneath the original media file.
This is very intuitive, but perhaps not totally unique - there are other tools that will let me achieve similar goals. However, where Octopz really blows the competition away is in applying the same approach to video and multimedia files.
With a video file uploaded, I can use the scrubber to synchronize my movie instantaneously on the screens of all other meeting attendees. As I move the scrubber the video fast forwards or rewinds on each participants screen. While this is impressive in itself, what really grabbed me was the ability to mark-up and annotate my videos just as I could my images.
That's right. I can draw or leave a note on a particular frame of my movie, and as I do so, a new file is created in the Octopz file list. After that, I can continue watching the movie, and the annotation seemingly disappears. However, with one click, the video instantly jumps to the frame that I added my notes to, for all to see. In this respect, it is possible to create precision annotations for moving image content, and this will be very welcome to those working in Internet video, broadcast and motion graphics.
Octopz is unique in the range of media types supported, allowing me to mark-up and annotate:
- Image files
- Panoramic images
- Office documents, and PDF files
- Audio files
- Video files
I have made a full list of all of the supported file types below, but needless to say, Octopz is nothing if not versatile. It's great to see a collaboration tool that allows for the fact that people rarely work in one medium alone. These days there are few creative professionals who work exclusively with images, or in video, for instance, as we are seeing an increasing convergence of media and work-flows. By allowing me to seamlessly switch from one medium to another, just as I might with the authoring tools on my desktop, Octopz stands out from its nearest competitors.
In addition to the main tool-set, Octopz has a couple of useful extra features that will aid the collaborative process, especially for those working separately, rather than in real-time.
The whiteboard is one way that users can leave messages for one another, and this is literally a white space which you can add your text and graphics to using the main Ocotpz tools. As is the case with your annotated media files, each time somebody leaves a note, a new file is created, so that it is perfectly possible to create a whole string of impromptu messages and doodlings.
This is supported by a simple bulletin board, which allows you to leave notes for one another using a chat-like interface, with basic formatting and alignment options for your text. Here, as is the case with the note tool, your name and a time-stamp are left with each message, so this could prove another useful way to catch up with colleagues working in a different timezone or to a different schedule.
One final feature available is the ability to take a snapshot of a website, which will then be imported into the workspace for annotation. All you have to do is enter the URL of the website you want to create an image from, and Octopz does the rest. This will please those working in web media, given that it cuts out the need to take a screen capture and upload it into Octopz for yourself, saving both time and effort.
Octopz makes sharing your work very simple, not just in its coverage of all of the major media formats and its intuitive interface, but also in terms of access to the tool. In addition to being able to create user accounts very easily from the Octopz interface, there is an even easier way to get people online and collaborating with you.
Say for instance you have a client that you want to invite to a presentation or discussion on a one-time basis. With a single click you can send out an automated email invitation, right from the Octopz menu. When your client receives their invitation, they simply click on a link within the email, and that's it - they are taken to the Octopz session you are running.
There is no need to install a Java applet, or change your browser permissions. You are there, in the session, in the space of a few seconds. I found this really refreshing after using numerous online collaboration tools that require at worst a lengthy download and application launch, and at best a dialogue box or two to be grappled with before the session begins in earnest.
Coupled with the deliberate simplicity of the Octopz interface, this makes for an intensely intuitive experience, dispensing with any barrier that might deter less technical users from taking part in a collaboration session. I feel confident that I could use Octopz with anyone, regardless of their lack of experience of collaboration tools and online meetings. That could be very useful when presenting work to less technically-inclined clients or colleagues.
Pricing and Implementation
Octopz has two basic models of implementation: an off-the-peg solution for independents and small businesses, and a customized solution for enterprise customers. A behind-the-firewall option will be added in quarter four of 2007.
For the small business user, Octopz costs $99 per license. One license allows you the following:
- 500Mb of storage, and 2Gb of data transfer per month
- The creation of an unlimited number of rooms, and unlimited number of users allowed to access these rooms. This means that you can set up different spaces for different purposes and meetings, each loaded with appropriate files
- One active room per license, hosting up to five collaborators at any one time. You could feasibly create 1000 rooms, but you can only use one of them at any given time for each license
- Training videos, online help and email support
I would personally like to see this storage space increased, as for $99 per month, 500Mb seems on the small side, as compared to the 2Gb of free storage offered by the totally free GMail service, for instance. Rich media files, when archived, will soon fill this capacity, and I would suggest that at a minimum this capacity should be doubled.
Enterprise customers have a range of options available to them, including:
- On-site training
- 24/7 telephone customer support
- Custom integration with existing business applications (e.g. Outlook, LDAP, CMS, DAMS)
- Custom document/template design
- Custom branding/white labeling
- Detailed usage reports
Contact details for the sales team are available for enterprise customers at the Octopz website, and pricing is in keeping with the specific needs of your company.
Octopz is truly cross-platform, which is refreshing in the world of online collaboration, where all too often the presenter can only use a Windows-based computer to present from. Whether you are on the Mac, Linux or Windows operating system you can use Octopz so long as you have a Flash-enabled web browser and an Internet connection.
Browsers supported include:
- PC - Internet Explorer 6+, Firefox 1.5+
- Mac - Firefox 18.104.22.168+
- Linux - Firefox 1.5+
- Flash Player 8+ (required)
- High speed internet access (recommended)
Octopz allows you to work with a fantastic range of media across a range of disciplines, and this really sets it apart from other less flexible online collaboration tools. You can work with any of the following file types:
- Video: asf, avi, mpeg, mpg, mov
- Audio: mp3
- Flash: swf
- Animation: Frame animations, fly-throughs, image sequences
- Panoramic Images: cylindrical and cubic stitched images
- Image Files: jpg, gif, png, tif, eps
- Adobe PDF: pdf
- Office: doc, xls, ppt, pps
Octopz is an excellent solution for anyone involved in the creative industry looking for an intuitive online collaboration and annotation tool. While there are other solutions that cater specifically to the need for collaborating with image files, documents, or synchronized video, Octopz offers the unique prospect of allowing you to work across the full range of media from a single application.
Effectively what you get, in a download-free, browser-based solution, is a way to collaborate and mark up documents, images, videos, multimedia files such as those authored in Flash, and even 3D panoramas all from a single, easy-to-use application. That's an industry first, and one that is going to be very useful to the new breed of multi-disciplinary designers and creatives working in the field of new media.
Furthermore, by making use of a Flash-based environment Octopz is truly multi-platform, making it easy for anyone with access to a Flash-enabled browser to use the service, whether from the Windows, Linux or Mac operating system.
With one-click email invitations, built in VoIP and web-cam support, and one of the most intuitive, easy-to-navigate interfaces I have seen in a long time, Octopz is refreshingly straightforward to use. For this reason alone, it could well prove a valuable tool for showcasing and discussing your rich-media content with non-technical clients or prospects, in addition to your creative collaborators.
My only gripe is a minor one and that is that I would like to see a little more in the way of storage for your media. 500Mb seems excessively stingy to me, given that Octopz costs the end-user $99 per license, while free services like Gmail offer over 2Gb of space for nothing.
That aside, I am genuinely impressed by the possibilities for online collaboration made available by Octopz. Being able to mark up video files and interactive Flash files as easily as I could a photo or text document is fantastic, and even more so for the ease with which this is made possible.
If you work in the creative industry and have a need to work collaboratively, or else display and discuss your work with clients, Octopz might very well be the online collaboration tool for you.
If you would like to read more about Octopz, you might want to check out the following links:
- The Octopz website
- Take the Octopz video tour
- Visit the Octopz blog
- Sign up for a free trial of Octopz
- Access the Octopz FAQ
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Originally written by Michael Pick for Master New Media and originally published as: "Online Collaboration Tool For The Creative Industry - Rich-Media Annotation Is Here With Octopz"
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