Jenson Taylor Blog

08 March 2012

Xtranormal (Beta) Animation Software Review, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

I have been looking to find a nice and easy animation software to use for a while and the best one I have found so was was Xtranormal.

Xtranormal is an animation software that is available in two versions; a web version and a desktop application. Both versions need internet access and you must login to your account in order to use the application as well as for downloading components such as animation characters, background images, etc which you have to pay for.

The Xtranormal application is easy to use and their trademark slogan "If you can type, you can make movies™" is certainly true although creating a "movie" is rather a stretch on the capabilities of the software and its current features.

To make an animation all you have to do is:
  1. select a background to be used 
  2. select one or more characters(actors/actresses)
  3. Type the dialog for your character
and that's all there is to it. If you want to create something more than a simple animation, you can use the "market place" button to view more characters, backgrounds, voices or even use your own sound files. You can also select or set your own camera angles. Also there is a lot of flexibility in where your characters are standing, where they would be facing, so the characters could be moved anywhere in the 3D set.

There are additional features for characters to take on a more realistic personality, for example you can dictate that a character should perform a "gesture", hold a certain "posture" or look at the camera or another place.



All in all I would say it's a great piece of software, however it doesn't feel like a finished product or something one could use for an important or serious animation for the reasons I have listed below:
  • The text to speech conversion is quite bad and primitive. When I think of other software and technologies that I have used for text to speech conversion I can clearly see there is a lack of expertise in this area at Xtranormal. Since this type of technology has been around for a long time, I had much higher expectation for this core functionality. This is the single biggest problem with this animation application. If the speech isn't good enough, there isn't much use for any created animation that makes use of these voice libraries. This also contradicts Xtranormal's mission statement/slogan: "If you can type, you can make movies™". One of the problems with the speech is that it is too fast and un-natural. I try to compensate for this problem by inserting commas into my text however there is no control over the length of pause a comma makes.
  • The application consumes a lot of resources and is very slow. There seems to be a lot of memory leak by this application and no word of fixing this issue yet from the team. Obviously these issues only become prominent once you decide to create an animation that is more than a few minutes long and make use of a larger scope of features.
  • Although you can manually set the camera angles, this is a time consuming process so if you decided to let the application run on auto-pilot setting beware that it will make very poor camera selections. For example one character could be talking and the auto-pilot camera would show the other character.
  • There is an option to add a pause anywhere in a dialog and the length of a pause can be manually controlled(the default is set at 2 seconds) however the shortest pause currently available is one second which is too long in some cases. A more fine-grain control over the pause would be very useful because a one second pause in a conversation seems like a lifetime.
  • There is no synchronization between the desktop application and the web version. So if you started your work on the desktop version, you would not be able to continue your work from a browser or vice versa.
  • Some characters are not capable of performing all gestures that are listed to be available for them. For example the Albert Einstein character on the desktop version of the application can not perform "dance wave", "dance twist" or the "dance turn" gestures.
  • The application provides some nice gestures such as "folding arms" however the same concept does not exist as a stance, so a character can not remain in a stance with folded arms.
  • Bug: If you create an animation with enough dialog boxes to cause the scrollbar to appear, you will come across an annoying bug. Every time you add a new dialog, the page will automatically scroll to the top. So now you have to scroll all the way to the bottom to type something in the new dialog box.
  • Bug: If you click the preview(play) button the tool you had selected last will be unselected and once the preview stops the "orbit" tool is selected which happens to be the first tool in the right hand side tool set.
  • Bug: If you have imported your own sound files for a dialog box and try to play a preview it appears to be working fine but if you move click on a random location in the playing timeline progress bar the audio and video play out of sync.
  • Bug: There are inconsistencies between the different voice libraries for example some voices read "IV" as four while other voices read it out as the letters "I" followed by "V"
Although I like this application, at its current state I would not recommend it. I will be exploring some alternatives animation application in the future and post reviews of them here, but for now, here is a video I created using Xtranormal.



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15 comments:

  1. Great stuff, Jenson. I'm actually an employee at Xtranormal and have seen you posting some of your work around the community lately, so it's nice to see some of your thoughts in one place.

    Though not all the feedback is positive, we love hearing about points like these because it enables us to quickly identify anything we can improve. From reading your list, it sounds like all of these are already things we're fixing or should see attention in the near future.

    Xtranormal didn't invent Text to Speech technology I'm afraid, and has always received its Text to Speech voices from third parties. Some of what's mentioned here is a little out of our control, which is why you might see some best practice tips in our Help areas for getting around some of the nuances of TTS.

    Regardless, we definitely want to improve this however we can, which is why we've recently added additional English-speaking voices to the service from our TTS provider, have enabled both our website and free downloadable software (still in Beta) to have your actors lip sync to your recorded voice or to uploaded audio you provide.

    We also have some fun new features that let you customize voices and much more in the works, but I can't go into details about these just yet. Stay tuned, and thanks again for all the amazing feedback!


    Skyler
    Xtranormal Team Member

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the reply and the information you have provided. The lip-sync functionality is great. I have many uses for it ;)

      What is the name of the third party library you use for TTS?

      p.s. I will do another review at some point in the future.

      Delete
    2. The voices you currently hear on the site are provided by a group called "Acapela."

      Thanks again!

      Skyler

      Delete
    3. Unlike Jensen, I strongly recommend this software. I have been using Xtranormal since December 2011 when the company revamped it’s Desktop version. I love the product and want to encourage anyone who is using the product to not give up on it. I agree that the text-to-speech technology needs work or perhaps Xtranormal could look into other voice products but right now a developer just has to be willing to work with it a bit. I also agree that the phrase “if you can type, you can make movies” is an oversimplification. If you want to make a good video, it will take time. Here are my tips based on my experience:
      1. If you can use female voices for your instruction, do so. The male voices just aren’t there yet. They are good for short bursts of dialog but I wouldn’t use a male voice extensively in any instruction.
      2. A developer must realize different ‘voices’ pronounce certain words differently. You will have to experiment. For example, I had to use a male voice for a piece of instruction and he could not say ‘resume’ as in a resume to get a job. Because the pronunciations are based on phonetics, I tried many different spellings; finally, I had to use the Character Map, grab an ‘e’ with the accent mark and copy and paste it into the Xtranormal dialog box. Once I did this he pronounced the word perfectly.
      3. There are other ways to pause speech besides using the comma. The pause button is excellent and can be set as small as 4 hundredths of a second.
      4. Keep each dialog box to no more than two sentences even if the same character is speaking for 4 or 5 sentences. The shorter the better. The longer one character talks at a time, the more robotic the character will sound.
      5. I agree that the software is resource heavy but that is no different than many video-related packages. I just recently purchased a Windows 8 PC with 8 GB RAM so now my Xtranormal projects are zooming along.
      6. I also agree that allowing the software to automatically set your camera angles is not a good idea and setting your own is time consuming but I expect that creating a decent video will be time consuming. Again, the phrase , “if you can type…” is an oversimplification.
      7. The first three bugs that Jensen mentions I have not experienced. The fourth, I don’t really see as a bug. I realized that different voices pronounced differently. You have to play with this and that will take time but I think the final output is worth it.
      I look forward to the improvement s Xtranormal will make to this product. I plan to stay with the company for the long haul. I use it at work and I use it in personal projects. If you have time, please visit my YouTube Channel, ‘320ljohnson’ to view 5 videos, I’ve done on Xtranormal. I am currently working on another Xtranormal project for YouTube that I hope to have uploaded by mid-April.
      **Thanks Jensen for putting uploading this blog entry and for giving us Xtranormal users an opportunity to comment.

      Delete
  2. I used the progam in 2008/9 and it sounds like the very same reasons/bugs are active today. The bugs the reviewer listed (nice review, by the way), are the SAME damn things that made me quit using the software 3-4 years ago.

    It seems a bit crazy that the issues haven't been resolved. And yes, I actually paid to use the software, I'd love it if there was any serious desire on the developers to make it a user-friendly software, but it doesn't seem they have the wherewithal to accomplish this.

    It's a shame.

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  3. I, too, am a user of Xtranormal Desktop. I have been since December 2011. I love this software and look forward to the improvements that will be made in the future. I just wanted to comment on a couple of things. First, I agree that the text-to-speech technology needs some work but my suggestions to anyone using the software would be
    1. if you can use a female voice, do so. The female voices are much better than the males (less robotic).
    2. You can do more than utilize commas to slow the speech down. The pause button is great. You can set the pause for various lengths.
    3. You can use quotes around words to force the characters to emphasize a word.
    4. I agree that the phrase "if you can type, you can make movies" is an oversimplification. If you want to make a good video, it will take time, even with this software but I think it is work the effort.
    5. A new user should be aware that getting the correct pronunciation of a word may take some work and different 'voices' may pronounce a word differently. For example, I had to use a certain male voice for a project and he could not say resume as in a resume for a job. I had to use the character map to find an 'e' with the accent mark on it and copy and paste it into the Xtranormal dialog box. Once I did this he pronounced it perfectly.
    Just a few tips and encouragement to anyone using this software to not give up on it. If you have time check out my Xtranormal videos at YouTube channel '320ljohnson'.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I, too, am a user of Xtranormal Desktop. I have been since December 2011. I love this software and look forward to the improvements that will be made in the future. I just wanted to comment on a couple of things. First, I agree that the text-to-speech technology needs some work but my suggestions to anyone using the software would be
    1. if you can use a female voice, do so. The female voices are much better than the males (less robotic).
    2. You can do more than utilize commas to slow the speech down. The pause button is great. You can set the pause for various lengths.
    3. You can use quotes around words to force the characters to emphasize a word.
    4. I agree that the phrase "if you can type, you can make movies" is an oversimplification. If you want to make a good video, it will take time, even with this software but I think it is work the effort.
    5. A new user should be aware that getting the correct pronunciation of a word may take some work and different 'voices' may pronounce a word differently. For example, I had to use a certain male voice for a project and he could not say resume as in a resume for a job. I had to use the character map to find an 'e' with the accent mark on it and copy and paste it into the Xtranormal dialog box. Once I did this he pronounced it perfectly.
    Just a few tips and encouragement to anyone using this software to not give up on it. If you have time check out my Xtranormal videos at YouTube channel '320ljohnson'.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I have been using the on line Xtrnormal and it's a test of my patience to wait for a movie preview to generating. It takes me a half hour to do just a half a dozen lines it seems. I can't use the Xtranormal desktop, because it keeps having loading issues and won't even let me begin a line of text or load character action. I have asked repeatedly for help but no one can help. They just say it has to do with perhaps, my firewall. I've tried to adjust all settings as best I can, but it doesn't work. I really want to try it. It's the only program on my computer that doesn't work. I have done a few movies that you could see that I did with the online version anyway. They are on Youtube channel hoozerob. Look at part one and two of "Date Blind". I think you might like them.

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    Replies
    1. Just to be sure, find my Xtranormal videos under my Youtube channel: Bobby Sherwood. Not the other. sorry. posted that when I was really exhausted from the workday. So look for the Date Blind part 1 and 2 there. Hope you like them.

      Delete
    2. I keep on trying to update my comment on this posting to give the right name to the Youtube channel my Xtranormal videos are on, but they don't show up. They are at the channel: Bobby Sherwood. Please. I would like some feedback on them. I posted the wrong one in my initial comment late at night and put in my user name instead.

      Delete
  6. Oops! correction. I forgot my user name is shown as Bobby Sherwood. duh, me. sorry.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Some of these issues can be addressed by using State Plus. Even though XN died, you can keep using State Plus here.

    http://stateplus.net

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    Replies
    1. Can you please give me a brief about stateplus and how it relates to xtranormal so that I can post it on my blog?

      Delete
    2. Not sure I can really be brief. Xtranormal had an initial explosion of R&D followed by a crushing series of layoffs before the site ever really took off. As a result, they left a ton of hidden capabilities buried underneath the hood of Xtranormal State. This is what I've unlocked in State Plus. As of now, State Plus can be installed and run offline without any dependency on XN accounts or servers. So it doesn't matter that XN is dead. State Plus is free abandonware.

      Delete
    3. Many thanks for your reply but I have some more questions ;)
      Is "State Plus" from the same source code base? i.e. is it essentially the same application without the need for server connectivity?
      Is it free?
      where can I download it?
      what are the licensing terms for animations created with it?

      Delete