Feb 2000                                                                                                     

Web Master Wanderings
By Curt Potsic, Space Coast PC Users Group

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SCPCUG Web Master Curt Potsic

What a great start for the year 2000! A week before Christmas 1999 the Space Coast PC Users Group received a most welcome and unexpected Christmas gift from our Site Host and Internet Service Provider, Palmnet Online (http://www.palmnet.net). We now have our own domain! You can now visit the SCPCUG Online at http://www.scpcug.com. I'm sure you will agree our new web address is a lot easier to remember. So please change the bookmarks and favorites in your browsers.

Last month we reviewed the free program BonziBUDDY available at http://www.bonzi.com/BonziBUDDY/BonziBUDDYFREE.asp. It features a Microsoft Agent character, Peedy (the talking parrot) that lives on your desktop. We briefly mentioned MagicSpell (http://www.streambox.com/products/magicspell/index.asp) which I originally reviewed in my Feb/March 1999 Web Master Wanderings column (http://www.scpcug.com/wmwand02.html). In view of the many improvements and additional features Streambox (http://www.streambox.com/) has added to MagicSpell I felt another look at this wonderful program was in order. It is my understanding that approximately 99 percent of the original code has been rewritten.MagicSpell Main Menu

MagicSpell is similar to BonziBUDDY in that it relies on Microsoft Agent technology. Where the two programs differ is in flexibility. BonziBuddy is basically preprogrammed for the user. There is no capability to add, edit or delete things like jokes, songs, comments, and no way to change characters if you get tired of the parrot. MagicSpell on the other hand is a dream for those of us that are not real programmers but like the idea of changing a program to suit our taste.

MagicSpell's original claim to fame was it read your ICQ (http://www.icq.com/) Instant Messages. Now it works with the Instant Messengers from AOL, Yahoo, and Microsoft Network. This has opened up a much larger audience. Even if you are not using an Instant Messenger, MagicSpell is well worth getting because of all its other features such as support for Windows Events, Voice Commands, Checking Mail, Changing Characters, Auto Updating, etc.

MagicSpell comes with 582 items (some are jokes and some are facts) in the Jokes folder and two songs in the Songs folder.Jokes Tab and Edit WindowsYou can select the folder that items are read from, if they are to be read only once, and the time interval (anywhere from "never" to "Every 1 min" to "Every 12 hours"). Double clicking on either of the folders reveals an edit window. For example, double clicking the Jokes folder shows the first several words of each item in a scroll down list. Here you can add or delete items, or have your Microsoft Agent character (Merlin the Wizard is the default) say the joke or fact. Double clicking one of the Jokes folder items brings up an Add/Edit item box. Here you can read the entire text of the item or have Merlin say it. You can also select when you want that particular item killed (from "Never" to "After 45 days"). Are you beginning to see how wonderfully customizable this program is?

A Scheduler is available which allows you to add/edit tasks. You can program it to run programs of your choosing by typing in the path. You have complete flexibility in that you can program a specific time, on startup of MagicSpell, or at a specific time interval (anywhere from "Every 1 min" to "Every 12 hours"). The task does not have to be a program. It could be a wav file which would automatically play through file association if you have the Windows Media Player set as your default player for wav files. Thus you would have an alarm clock. Now this is no ordinary scheduler. Along with scheduling the task you can add text for your character to say and animation for the character to perform. Each Agent character has a comprehensive list of animations it can perform such as Announce, Explain, Gesture (in various directions), Get Attention, Process, Read, Suggest, Think, Wave, Write, etc. Merlin for example has a list of 57 animations. If you don't want to choose a specific animation you can select "random animation". In addition you can have the character change it's position on your screen by specifying the x and y coordinates. As an example, I scheduled Merlin to perform the "Get Attention" animation while saying some text that I had typed in. I called my wife (Milada) into the computer room just before the scheduled time. On cue Merlin tapped on the inside glass of my computer screen (you actually hear the tapping-on-glass sound) and says "Curt you sure look spiffy today. Do you think Milada noticed?" My wife was quite surprised. Do you see the possibilities of having fun with this program? You can personalize it to say the names of your children, grandchildren, friends, etc. along with any text of your choosing.

MagicSpell will check your POP3 server for new e-mail and can read you the number of messages, who they are from, and the subject. You can specify the checking time interval. Along with this you can program the character animation, position, and what it says when it checks the mail. I have both Netscape and Internet Explorer installed on my machine but use Netscape's Messenger for my e-mail client. MagicSpell works fine with Netscape's Messenger. Some other programs that check e-mail will only work with Internet Explorer's e-mail client, Outlook Express.

Need a Reminder pad? MagicSpell has one. It works similar to the Task Scheduler but in this case the character will only read your note. You cannot program animation or character position. This makes sense as a reminder is a essentially a note to yourself, so reading is what the character does. Options are available for specifying the day of the alert, how often to notify you, and when to start and stop notifying you.

How about a Media search capability? Call up MagicSpell! The search is done by the Streambox site search engine which looks for audio, video, or live event links to streaming media on the net in the Widows Media Player or Real Player formats.

Okay, remember that capability of programming your character with text to say, animation, and position on your screen?Add/Edit Window for Window Events You can associate that with a Windows Event Command. You can now make opening and closing a program like Wordpad or Calculator interesting. For example when I open the Windows Calculator, Merlin starts stirring a boiling and bubbling pot of green liquid (the "Process" animation) and says "Hey Curt are we making big money in the stockmarket today?" When I close the Calculator, Merlin puts on goggles, a propeller pops out of his hat, he flies across my computer screen, waves his magic wand and says "Let's party with all that moola!" The programming is so simple you can change the animation, text, etc. as often as you like in less than a minute.

MagicSpell has just too many features to go into everything here but one of the best is Voice commands. Yes you can actually talk to Merlin and he will respond. As part of the install process MagicSpell goes back to the Internet to install the Microsoft Agent core components. At that time you are given the option to download the Microsoft speech recognition engine. This is an extra 6 MB download but well worth it for the fun you can have. All of the Agent core components including the speech recognition engine are free. The downside of this free speech recognition feature is it comes with only four global commands. The window of the Voice commands tab under Settings in MagicSpell is blank and waiting for you to add commands.Voice Commands Tab The four global commands are: "Hide" (Merlin disappears to the System Tray), "Merlin" (Merlin pops on to your screen), "What can I say" (opens a Voice Commands Window) and "Close Voice Commands Window". Maybe future versions of MagicSpell will come with some sample preprogrammed voice commands like "Page Down", "Enter", "Find", "Save", "Close", etc. For now you will have to add your own voice commands. That seems simple enough for opening specific programs. I easily programmed it to start Netscape, Wordpad, Calculator, and my midi player Midiplus.

You can also have fun with the voice commands. Before my brother came for a visit I programmed the voice command "We have a visitor". When my brother came over I was showing him Merlin and said the command. Recognizing the command Merlin performed the "Acknowledge" animation (a nod down and up) and said "Oh! Who could it be? Why it's big Al Potsic, your brother. Hey big Al, are you making any money in the stock market lately? Curt is always using that calculator to figure his profits."

Please don't get the idea that MagicSpell can take the place of a full blown voice recognition program like Lernout & Hauspie Voice Xpress (http://www.lhsl.com/voicexpress/), IBM ViaVoice (http://www-4.ibm.com/software/speech/) or Dragon Naturally Speaking (http://www.dragonsystems.com/products/index.html). The voice recognition in MagicSpell is very basic and relates to only limited commands of windows events, not dictation. Another thing is you have to press the Scroll Lock button on your keyboard each time you want your character to listen for a command. Your character will remain in listening mode for only a few seconds. Microsoft Agent was not designed to be in a continuous listening mode. But for anyone curious about the subject of computer voice recognition this is a wonderful way to get your feet wet. And the recognition is amazingly accurate.

In addition to all of the great features mentioned above MagicSpell allows you to easily change Agent characters whenever you like. Many Microsoft Agent characters are available for free on the Internet at http://www.msagentring.org/agentchars.html. So if Merlin does not suit you, just select another. On my computer I have Merlin, Peedy, James, Genie, and Wartnose.

Streambox has done a wonderful job of integrating so many features into MagicSpell. The program has come a long way from its start of simply reading your clipboard and ICQ messages. However one area in which I would like to see improvement is in the Help file. While its integrated Help file is adequate, I would have preferred several specific examples (and more detail) of the program's features, especially in areas where programming was involved like the Voice commands and Windows events commands. This review is based on Streambox MagicSpell Version 1 Build #24. Perhaps we will see such improvements in future builds.

Note: Web Master Wanderings articles contain links to external web sites. Web addresses are constantly changing. There is no guarantee that the information links provided in this article will remain unbroken or up-to-date beyond the date that this article is originally published.