Monday, November 2, 2009

Zooming into presentations - Zoomit, Prezi & pptPlex

In this blog post, I describe 3 different ways to zoom in and out of presentations to increase visibility, and to create a bit of action. The three tools are Zoomit, Prezi and pptPlex. I describe my experiences with them in detail and their pros and cons as presentation tools.

UPDATE : John in his comments below suggest that I should have included ahead, a even newer tool that in some respects is similar to Prezi , but which he claims is easier to use than Prezi . I took a quick look it does look interesting, but still in beta. Will review that in future blog post in comparison with Prezi. 


Recently I gave my first ever talk at a local library conference in Singapore - Libraries of tomorrow . The content of my talk wasn't anything particularly interesting (about "Subject Guides 2.0" which many readers of this blog will recognize covers much of the same ground I blogged about in past posts and which I later realized wasn't particularly ground-breaking anyway), so I won't talk about it here, but instead I will talk about the presentation tool I used.

While the conference was ran efficiently and I was extremely impressed by the work of my fellow presenters and posters, I felt that the venue wasn't the best place for giving talks, as there was sunlight coming from behind the screen (we were at the top level of a building with clear transparent windows), and the glare made it difficult (at least for me, though bear in mind I have very poor eyesight!) to see the powerpoint presentations.

Hazman from NTU Library probably fared the best, as a lot of his slides were often simple one message points with huge fonts, but few presenters have mastered this technique; personally I'm guilty as anyone of trying to squeeze small unreadable fonts on slides.

In situations like this, it would be good to have some way to zoom while doing presentations or create "zoomable presentations" to overcome problems of poor visibility.

Right now, I'm aware of 3 solutions, in order of simplicity (in terms of use and preparation time), they are ZoomIt -a portable zooming app from Windows Sysinternals (now owned by Microsoft) , pptPlex   (Microsoft Sharepoint addon that creates zoomable slides) and Prezi a presentation tool that creates zoomable flash presentations.


I'm sure while giving presentations as librarians you have come across situations where you need to zoom in to whatever you are showing so that everyone, even those right at the back with poor eyesight can see what you are doing.

If it's content on the browser page itself you could zoom using built in browser functions (hold cltr and use the mouse wheel), but there are drawbacks to zooming this way, and anyway you can't do this when doing a demonstration with  say Endnote, neither does it work , if you want to type in a url in the address bar , and you can't zoom in for that using normal browser functions.

This is where ZoomIt comes in handy. It's a small portable application, that you can carry on your thumb drive. Hold on cltr and 1 and it automatically zooms in to the part where your mouse cursor is. Right click and it zooms out. Other functions allow you to annotate and type text or draw free hand with different colors and sizes.

If you are using Windows Vista it supports "Live zoom" (hold cltr and 4), what this means is that unlike the earlier zoom , this is actually live, you can continue to work in zoomed mode (type url, click on buttons etc). Below is a short video showing how it works.

The advantage of ZoomIt is that it can work for any type of presentation, and almost no pre-preparation is needed. You can of course use ZoomIt for zooming into normal powerpoint presentations, but it's somewhat clunky to use this way, instead there are two ways to create "zoomable presentations" , that allow you to zoom in or out several levels, or allow you  to do flashy animation by spinning and twisting text, images etc.


Prezi  is a very new presentation tool that began making waves early this year, I got my beta pass in April and have being trying it out since then. It's really hard to describe Prezi , so rather than try, let me embed a few Presentations created by librarians on Prezi (more here).

The first is by Lynnwood Library to publicise their summer reading program.

The second is a library orientation for graduates students at Western Libraries in Canada.

The third is an example teaching research from Carol Skalko of University of New Haven Libraries.

I could go on, there are hundreds of excellent examples from libraries and librarians, and besides the standard conference presentations on web 2.0 (example , example 2), there are some unique ideas (floorplans?, putting covers of new additions?, tongue-in-a-cheek quiz?) , presentations to management (example),though announcement of changes (example), orientations and tutorials (example, example 2, example 3)seem to predominate.

You can embed pictures, movies even  PDF and powerpoint slides!.The free version 

  • gives you 100 mb of space, which is plenty until you start embedding videos. 
  • allows use of the presentation in an online version (the embeds above), 
  • or you can download an offline player version that requires only Flash to run , and works even without internet connection. 
  • does not allow private presentations (the pro allows private presentation). 
  • You can also only work on your presentation with the online editor, though the pro version gives you a desktop version so you don't need internet to build your presentations.

My very  preliminary  use was to present quick results of LIBQUAL survey internally, but  that was just a test.

Prezi isn't easy to use

One issue with Prezi  is that it's isn't very intuitive to use, particularly since the UI seems to take delight at being stylic rather than functional. You don't access functions using a normal toolbar (or ribbon these days), but you instead get a "bubble menu".

Resizing items via the "transformation zebra" is particularly painful.

Don't get me started on pathing (the focus movement when you click on the forward arrow).

All in all it took me a minimum of 3-4 weekends before working Prezi became half-way natural. That doesn't sound so bad but there still another major problem.

Just as people know how to make PowerPoint "Dance to their tune" and can add text of different fonts, add animation of all sorts, they still produce bad presentations because they don't know what to do with it.

Prezi has this problem ten fold, it requires a very different way of thinking, there are no slides (though there are frames that allow you to group items), you can add items at various levels of scale (for surprise value), you can add different rotation angles and people who learn Prezi tend to go aboard with this, but how much rotation and how best to "Tell a story with zoom" is a open question.

Even after I could get Prezi to do pretty much what i wanted without difficulty, I still spent hours looking at some good Prezi presentations and trying to tease out some general principles on why they worked, and what rotation techniques work and what doesn't. The tutorials are a start but there's still a lot of unanswered questions on what is actually good design technique for Prezi. I wouldn't hold my breath though for answers, since this is very new ground, though I wager the official blog  has more answers than any other place.

I struggled with Prezi for a long while and though I wasn't satisfied I eventually presented using this. I think there was a bit of a stir when I started, I believe they were reacting to Prezi rather than my content though and indeed I got questions about Prezi in private fter I finished. Apparently, all that rotation was exciting enough to "wake up" some of the audience!

Still I think if I had just stuck with powerpoint, I might have more time to work on my preparation rather than the final mess (including lack of preparation that showed) that emerged. Oh well, will do better next time.

Pptplex - Making Powerpoints Prezi-like

After the conference, while doing research for this blog post, I discovered pptplex , it's a experimental addon for Powerpoint 2007 found at Office labs (I didn't realize Microsoft Office had a "lab") ! The idea is that with pptplex you can easily convert Powerpoints into zoomable presentations.

The installation will give you a new pptplex tab.

Essentially, you divide your powerpoints slides into sections (click on "insert new section" - see below) and each section can then be treated as an entity and can be zoomed in or out.

In the video below, I show an example of a old library orientation presentation  that I quickly converted using pptplex . For example the "Introduction" section is made up of 3 slides. Arrows keys allow you to go forward and backwards.

By default, pressing the forward arrow zooms to the section title, a second press zooms to first slide in section , a third press moves to the second slide in the section, and so on until last slide in the section, and then it zooms back to original section title.. before moving on to next section.

This simulates of course the old adage about "telling them what you will tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them"

Still, you can change this behavior in the advanced options.

You can also view in "free form", click on any section to zoom, click on any slide to zoom down further, you can even zoom in further by clicking on any section of the slide. Right click to zoom out.

So far, the above example uses a "blank canvas" , the next two examples uses pre-created canvases

It's trivial to add pre-created canvas, just click on "canvas background" (see below)

Adding a canvas, will simply add a special slide at the head of your presentation and you can edit it (see below).

You can even move sections around and resize each section, or even create your own canvas.

Pptplex -Not for everyone?

The main advantage of pptplex is that it's almost trivial to use. Really it took me 15 minutes to convert each presentation. When people create powerpoint slides, they already naturally sub-divide groups of slides into sections most of the time, so what pptplex is doing here isn't that alien.

It's not as flexible as Prezi, you can't do rotations, add movies etc.

As a matter of fact, it doesn't currently work with normal powerpoint animation. Also has noted it works only with PowerPoint 2007 but not older versions (but see Counterpoint??)

Another negative point is that it takes a while to convert to a zoomable presentation with pptplex (my 90 slide EndNote presentation took over 3 minutes?), and there doesn't seem anyway to prepackage it so it works on all systems, which can be a problem if you have do a presentations on systems you don't control, running older versions of powerpoint, or even systems with powerpoint 2007 but did not install the pptplex plugin (which is basically 99% of systems).

Okay, what about doing a remote access into your system that has the plugin installed? Not a good idea, the moment you try this, you get a warning that pptplex can be very slow when on remote access.I tried and it is indeed slow, even after building the presentation.


I reviewed 3 ways to create zoomable presentations ZoomIt, Prezi and  pptplex . 

Are there other ways to make presentations more interesting and more importantly clearer for your audience? If you have tried any of the 3, I would love to hear your experiences with them.


I was introduced to the idea of using Zoomit by Kenneth Lim, another techy librarian from NUS Libraries and have being using it for my EndNote training sessions. Thanks Kenneth!
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