Chatting via video in iChat is cool, but I didn’t realize I was missing something until recently when a client introduced me to ShowMacster, a utility that enables me to display more than just my ugly mug during a video chat.
The notion behind ShowMacster is simple: why limit your outgoing video signal to what’s in front of your webcam, when you can also interject other digital imagery such as photos or movies? Say you’re video chatting with your mother and want to show her your latest digital photos. What then?
Using iChat by itself, only a few options are available. You can open a new text chat window and drag the photos, one at a time, to the text field; it takes a minute or so (depending on the speed of your connection) for the image to appear on the other person’s computer. Or, you could use iChat’s Send File command (in the Buddies menu) to transfer the image files, which requires Mom to open them in a separate application such as iPhoto or Preview. You could also take a more traditional, roundabout route and send the image files via email or upload them to a .Mac HomePage. In each case, it ends up being a fair bit of work and, at least in my experience, sometimes the files won’t successfully go through.
With ShowMacster installed, by contrast, you drag the image files (either singly or in a group) to a drawer attached to the video chat window. The images occupy a new slot that contains a small preview and a Play/Pause button. When you click the button, the images appear instead of your camera’s video; you see the images in iChat’s small reference window and the other person views them in their full iChat window until you click the Play/Pause button again, at which point the video from your camera takes over.
When you drop a group of photos onto an optional Quickdrop field, they play back as a slideshow. While ShowMacster’s feed is enabled, your audio is still activated, so you can continue to talk while showing off your pictures.
Similarly, you can share movies (QuickTime, AVI, MPEG-4, 3GP, and 3G2 format) by dropping them onto the ShowMacster drawer and using the controls to play them. I can imagine this feature being valuable to video editors and graphic designers who want to review footage with clients over the Internet. Better yet, some rudimentary video controls are available, such as jog and shuttle control for navigating quickly to specific points in a clip, as well as a timecode display.
Another collaborative visual editing tool is the sketchboard, a separate window with basic drawing tools that acts as an iChat whiteboard. Dragging a photo to the sketchboard makes it possible to mark up the image as if you were huddled around a conference table.
Audio files are supported, too, enabling you to play music for someone without sending an audio file, but I wasn’t able to get this feature to work.
ShowMacster is also a useful training tool, enabling you to send live captures of your screen to the other person. Want to show an inexperienced Mac user where to find a program’s preferences file that’s buried in the Library folder? Instead of narrating the steps, jump into screen capture mode and have them follow your movements. You can specify an area of the screen to send, enabling you to zoom in on that section; a preference dictates whether the active capture area follows the mouse or not.
Media files that you place into the drawer stay there for use in the future and can be grouped into categories for faster access. If you want to send an original file to your iChat buddy (for example, Mom wants digital copies of a few of the photos), simply drag them from the ShowMacster drawer onto the buddy’s icon in the Buddy List.
Since ShowMacster is simply inserting audio and video into the existing data stream, the program works in multi-person chats under Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger. Also, ShowMacster operates one-way; your recipients don’t need to own a copy of the software for it to work.
A trial version of ShowMacster, which stops working after 15 minutes until the next time you launch iChat, is a 1.4 MB download. A license costs $20, which covers one iChat identity. It works with iChat under Mac OS X 10.3 Panther or Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger (a separate installer is available for each), and requires a native FireWire webcam (such as an iSight or attached digital camcorder).