Advances in technology mean graphics and text packages for presentations can now run on standard PCs. But, as Simon Rines discovers, many firms do not realise how cheap they are

The whole process of producing and delivering audio-visual presentations is now theoretically in the hands of the speaker.

PCs are now easy to use and carry sophisticated graphics software packages which, when combined with user-friendly electronic projection technology, have made professional quality, DIY presentations a reality.

It’s surprising that production houses haven’t gone out of business. “Most companies learned the lesson of hiring specialists for specialist tasks long ago,” says Mark Wallace, managing director of production company MWA.

“The problem is that enthusiastic amateur creatives have to learn design discipline. All too often they are like magpies – they take a picture from here, some text from there and before they realise it they have assembled an unrelated and often gaudy hotchpotch,” adds Wallace.

There are several other reasons why the DIY option is not universally taken. Executive time is expensive and most organisations don’t want to pay senior staff to sit around drawing up pie charts. But this argument is becoming less relevant because the ease of use of today’s presentation software means that, in many cases, it is just as quick for busy executives to produce graphics as it is to brief an agency to do it for them. The main reason is that many people either do not have the facilities to produce graphics or do not realise how cheap and easy it is to do.

Then there are companies that have all the facilities without realising it.

One of the biggest changes in presentation graphics in recent years is that the software is often “bundled” with the office package and the PC is now powerful enough to run fairly sophisticated effects.

This bundling has made Microsoft’s PowerPoint, which comes with the company’s Office package, the most widely used presentation software. Next most popular are Lotus Freelance, which is also available as part of a bundle, and SPC’s Harvard, which is sold on its own. For Apple Macintosh users the leading package is Persuasion.

“There are two main benefits to having PowerPoint as part of Office. First, the practicalities of using the different packages are similar, so anyone who is familiar with Word (word processing) or Excel (spreadsheet), for example, will find PowerPoint easy to use,” says PowerPoint product manager Chris Caile.

“The second benefit is the ability to take information from one package to another. If a

document is produced in Word the headings can be imported into PowerPoint to turn it into a presentation.

“Similarly, any updating of material in Excel that has also been used to create charts in PowerPoint will automatically be updated in PowerPoint,” he says.

Because there is such competition between software producers, the packages have to be

easy to use to maintain their market share. PowerPoint, Freelance and Harvard all work in the Windows environment (a system which allows users to access applications using on-screen icons and menus rather than having to remember text commands).

The methods of production are also similar. A template menu for each type of graphic, such as bar chart, pie chart or text image, can be viewed and by simply clicking the chosen design with the mouse it will fill the working area of the screen.

Titles and other pieces of text are simply added and, if it is necessary to input data for a chart, a small grid appears for numbers to be entered. The software will then automatically produce the graphic, although editing can be done if necessary.

These packages have become powerful enough to be used by production specialists who previously used much more expensive products to attain the required level of sophistication.

“We now use PowerPoint on many of our client’s presentations,” says Paul Bridgland, managing director of computer graphics specialist Creation Station.

“It is easy to use and allows a wide variety of backgrounds, design styles, charts and image change-over effects. For more elaborate presentations, however, when we want to enhance graphics, we still need to use it in conjunction with other software products,” he adds.

The two main products used for this enhancement are Adobe’s Photoshop and CorelDRAW! Although it is possible to scan images into standard presentation software using a desktop scanner, which costs about 600, there are limitations to what can be done with the image.

“For high-profile work clients might, for example, want ‘watermark effect’ backgrounds using the company logo. To do this, you really require a package like Photoshop, which allows you to blend photographic images with logos. CorelDRAW! is then used to carry out detailed design work. For most standard presentation work, however, we find PowerPoint is a very good package,” says Bridgland.

As with software, there is also a lot of confusion about what computer hardware is required to run the packages.

“The most basic machine these packages should be run on is a 486/66 PC with 16Mb Ram (megabyte, random access memory) and a 500Mb hard drive,” he says.

Ram can govern the speed at which the machine processes material because it is effectively a temporary memory – used to hold large amounts of information while a specific job is being done. Without a large Ram, graphics processing can be slow because information has to be transferred to and from the hard disk. Because graphics are complex pieces of information, they require more memory and processing power than most computer applications, which is why it pays to run the software on powerful machines.

“It is, in theory, possible to run on lower powered machines. But it’s very slow and laborious. One of the most important features, however, which people often tend to overlook is the graphics capabilities of the equipment. When using photographic images it is necessary to have at least 65,000 colours available on-screen, otherwise photographs simply cannot be reproduced clearly. Many older 486s and most modern laptops have only 256 colours,” Bridgland points out.

The use of laptops is an attractive proposition to those wishing to produce graphics. Because so many presentations are designed to be made away from the building in which they are produced, having a portable PC makes it that much easier to take a presentation on the road.

“Certainly a laptop has advantages,” says Peter Cooper, general manager of audio-visual and computer equipment supplier Reflex. “The user can work on presentations while out of the office and make last minute changes. Also, there is no need to rely on someone else supplying the PC.

“The only concern is the display projection medium and this is an area in which equipment development is matching that in computing. Liquid crystal display (LCD) projectors are rapidly catching up with the quality of cathode ray tube models and have significant advantages for the DIY user,” he says.

There are a wide variety of LCD projectors on the market, varying from 1,500 to 8,000.

The equipment comes in two formats. First is the LCD panel, an LCD screen which is connected to a PC and uses an under-light overhead projector as its light source and optics. Such panels fit easily into a briefcase. One model, The Cruiser – marketed by Daltek Distribution – has a detachable screen.

The one problem with panels is that they require good quality overhead projectors to get the best results. Without taking a projector on the road, it is difficult to guarantee it will be available on-site.

The alternative is to use a standard LCD projector. This has a self-contained light source, optics and LCD panel, and looks like a cine-projector without the reels. To make a presentation, the user simply connects the projector to a PC or video source, zooms and focuses the lens and a large image will appear on-screen.

Manufacturers such as Sharp, Sanyo, NEC and Sony are constantly leapfrogging each other in terms of image quality and value-for-money. Perhaps the most highly regarded model available is the InFocus LitePro 580, costing 7,500. This is claimed to produce images 30 per cent brighter than competitors.

One point often overlooked when making presentations is how to scroll through the images on-screen.

Using a keyboard is awkward for someone trying to concentrate on their presentation. Even using a mouse can be difficult – although Microsoft’s ergonomic mouse does make life easier.

An alternative is to use an Air Mouse, which costs 299 – a cordless version of a standard mouse. This enables the presenter to wander around the room and point at the screen to run the presentation.

This plethora of technology is beginning to have an effect on the presentation industry and the use of slides has already fallen.

“The biggest impact is that more people are using presentation equipment than ever,” says Wallace.

“The results may not always be up to professional standards but it is helping to make presentations more interesting and informative and that has to be good for everyone in the industry,” he says.