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Digital Chisel: An Elegant Eye-Opener

Digital Chisel HTML 2.1.3, affectionately known as "the Chisel," comes from Pierian Springs Software, and it’s used by teachers and students to devise snazzy multimedia presentations, tutorials, and even tests. Digital Chisel HTML recently added "HTML" to its name, and – intrigued by the HTML aspects – I decided to review the new version. I thought it would be eye-opening to try a totally different approach to creating Web sites than that offered by page-oriented software like PageMill or tag-focused software like BBEdit.

I found Digital Chisel to be a fun, elegant product whose presentations can run under the freely distributable Digital Chisel Player or be converted to Web sites. Digital Chisel projects resemble HyperCard stacks, with screens linked together by buttons. Developers needn’t worry about code at all, and the Digital Chisel Player takes care of behind-the-scenes operations like recording test scores.


Kids and teachers are making Chisel projects of all sorts: the life cycle of salmon, mock commercials about missions to Mars, and digital portfolios. In addition, students are making quizzes for other students to take, and teachers are producing serious tests.

Objects of Desire — When working in Digital Chisel, you work on one screen at a time, though it’s easy to switch screens. Screens contain text, graphics, animations, and sounds, which – as far as Digital Chisel is concerned – are "objects." You can drag objects anywhere you like, even overlapping other objects. Any object can be animated, either along a path or as part of a simple, flipbook-style movie. Objects can be created within Digital Chisel, imported from disk, or accessed from Chisel libraries, which provide a quick way to browse groups of objects.

Digital Chisel comes with 25 or so sounds, including the likes of Aooga and Dinosaur Growl. The package also includes a few QuickTime movies, a number of general clip-art images, and a library of 70-odd useful and attractive button images.

I started my first screen by drawing out a text object and typing inside it. Text can be formatted with a fairly normal array of styles, fonts, sizes, and colors. In some kids’ programs, I’ve seen special formats like big bubbles and sparkles, but the Chisel has no such novel formats. Text can also be turned into hot links leading to pop-up notes. For instance, a hot link might define a new vocabulary word.

After figuring out text, I moved on to graphics. Graphics can be drawn as vector-based images (where images consist of shapes that can be re-sized or re-colored) or painted as collections of pixels located in a user-defined paint object. I especially liked the ability to insert some pre-drawn objects like arrows and stars. One frustration was the color palette. The palette has plenty of colors, arranged in a 16 by 16 square. I had a hard time remembering exactly which colors I had used previously, and the Chisel has no eyedropper, custom palette, or other tool that might have refreshed my memory.

Not wanting to stop at simple text and graphics, I moved on to adding sounds. Digital Chisel can import sounds, but I used the simple recording interface to record my own. (Several teachers told me that their kids especially like this feature; apparently they like to play back their voices.) I made some sounds that played when users clicked buttons and others that played automatically when a screen first opened. Similarly, it’s possible to create or insert QuickTime movies. You make a QuickTime movie one frame at a time, and you’d better get it right, because there’s no way to go back and edit the frames. In addition, there’s no way to add sound to a movie.

Moving Target — Once you’ve set up a few objects, you can call it quits, or you can figure that the fun is just beginning. Double-click any object and a palette comes up that enables you to set which events happen when the mouse moves over the object, when the mouse button is pressed over the object, or when the button is released over the object. Objects can change color, animate along a path, play sounds, speak words, cause a portion of a CD or video disk to play, and more. Just one event can happen, or up to 24 events can happen. For instance, in my project (which was about how Adam and his father cut down a dead tree in our back yard [a technically tricky and heroic procedure involving chainsaws that resulted in minor damage to only two feet of our deck’s railing, rather than the total obliteration of the deck from the 100-foot tall dead hemlock. -Adam]), I made a person move to look at the dead tree, and then say, "oh no!" In effect, every object is potentially a button.

Buttons can also link to other screens, and you could easily design and implement your own navigation bar, or use buttons to jump users around in the project. (Those who don’t want to build their own navigational devices, however, can use the default navigation toolbar). If you’ll be exporting to HTML, you can also link buttons to URLs.

Change of Screen — In addition to customizing what happens when an object is moused, you can set things to happen as a new screen opens. Any screen can open with a transition effect, such as a zoom or a "venetian blind" open. In addition sounds and movies can play when a screen opens.

Quizzes — Any screen can be part of an online quiz, and Digital Chisel comes with optional templates to speed the quiz creation process. In the case of tests having fixed answers (like multiple choice or true/false), the screen can be told which answer is correct, and during testing respond based on whether a student chooses the correct answer. Students taking quizzes can indicate who they are, and any Chisel project can record quiz results in a simple database.

Stepping onto the Web — Digital Chisel has taken the big step of adding HTML export features. The export works on an entire project at once, or you can export individual pages. The HTML export turns each screen into a Web page and converts the navigation bar into appropriate buttons. Hot text links connect to anchors further down on the page. To place objects correctly, Digital Chisel utilizes tables and specifies cell widths by the pixel. To maintain some semblance of how the font looked in Digital Chisel, it employs the <FONT> tag with size and color attributes. Pages with test questions do not convert to HTML.

Although I normally disapprove of pixel-specific layouts (see TidBITS-362), to my surprise, I found myself not minding Chisel using a pixel-specific technique. Chisel authors are inherently designing for the screen and can set the assumed screen size. Digital Chisel calls its parts "screens," not "pages," and displays them in a landscape orientation (since most screens are wider than they are high). That assumption means Digital Chisel is coming at the Web from a completely different mindset than the shock-blink-and-frame crowd, and it’s great that Chisel presentations can be placed on the Web instead of living out their lives in the relative obscurity of the Digital Chisel Player.

I was not satisfied with the HTML export because objects tended to end up misaligned, and working with the table tags in the resulting HTML documents proved frustrating. I also thought that hot text links should open a new page or window instead of linking to the bottom of the page. And, as an HTML-savvy adult, I wanted more control over decisions like using the <FONT> tag. However, in this version of Digital Chisel, I think it’s important to consider the HTML export a possibly handy add-on, not a raison d’etre. Unlike many sub-par HTML editing tools whose marketers say that the tool may lack features but works wonderfully for kids and novice adults, this product is intended for kids. What features belong in an HTML product for kids remain to be seen, and I suspect that Pierian Springs is working hard on this issue, since their upcoming 3.0 version will offer more Web-related features.

Review Roundup — I have little first-hand appreciation for what a twelve-year-old might find lacking in the program, but features I missed were style sheets for text and a grid for lining up screen elements. (It’s possible to set a temporary grid on the background – each screen can have a background, and backgrounds can be shared, much like master pages in PageMaker). I’ve spent a lot of time working with the likes of Claris Home Page and Symantec Visual Page, so I missed the freedom of importing objects via drag & drop from the Finder. Additionally, there’s no way to see an overview of a project. A palette lists project screens, and you can use drag & drop to reorder the screens, but I’d like to see a thumbnail view of the project, complete with the ability to drag & drop objects onto screens in the thumbnail view.

Those complaints aside, the Chisel strikes me as a top-notch program. Teachers I spoke with backed up that impression, with comments like "student friendly," and "it takes you as far as your imagination will take you." The interface is easy to learn and appealing to look at, and I highly recommend it to anyone under the age of 16 who wants to have a blast making presentations. The arrangement of the menus, the palettes, the commands, the entire way that the program fits together has an easy, elegant feeling found rarely in software, and makes me like the program far more than I would if the interface were compromised to add more features.

I had an excellent experience with Pierian Spring technical support – the support person not only gave lots of suggestions for solving my problem, he also helped me avoid future problems. All the teachers I spoke with praised the support staff without being asked.

To run Digital Chisel, Pierian Springs says that ideally you’d have a 68040- or PowerPC-based Macintosh, with 5 MB available application RAM and a monitor that can display 256 colors. Minimally, the company recommends a 25 MHz 68030-based Mac, 3 MB available RAM, any version of System 7, and at least a 12-inch, 256-color monitor. You also need at least 5 MB free hard disk space. Pierian Springs is working on Digital Chisel 3.0 (it’s about to go into beta), and a Windows version is also in the works.

Digital Chisel costs $109 for a single user, school packs cost $149, and there are also various site license deals. Additionally, through 30-Apr-97, Strata and Pierian Spring are offering a joint bundle that includes Vision 3D 4.0, Media Paint 1.2, two copies of VideoShop 3.0, Digital Chisel 2.1.3, a Vision 3D tutorial, and a t-shirt. This bundle costs $379; $239 educational.

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Pierian Springs Software — 800/472-8578 — 503/222-2044

503-222-0771 (fax) — <[email protected]>

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