Apr 2001                                                                                                     

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

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SCPCUG Web Master Curt Potsic

First, I would like to thank Bob Click, "The DealsGuy," for posting a couple of my Web Master Wanderings articles in the "Other Articles of Interest" section of his web site http://www.dealsguy.com/. Bob's column, with the latest and greatest software and computer related gadget deals, appears monthly in "The Space Coast PC Journal" as well as many other user group newsletters. His web site has the current and past columns along with some personal insight into the man getting us all of those great deals.

Now on to my current wanderings. I recently found that the program MagicSpell (reviewed in the Feb 2000 Web Master Wanderings at http://www.scpcug.com/wmwand13.html) is no longer available from Streambox.com (http://www.streambox.com/products/#magic). So I have found a similar type program and it's free. It's called CyberBuddy and is available at http://www.yeayou.com/cyberbuddy/. As with MagicSpell, CyberBuddy uses the Microsoft Agent core components and the Lernout & Hauspie TruVoice Text-to Speech Engine (which provides speech output for the Microsoft Agent Characters). If you already have these installed on your computer, as I did, your download will be only the 1.35 MB CyberBuddy program. Those using the Windows 2000 or Windows ME operating systems already have the MS Agent core components installed. All required files are free and downloading them is no big deal. CyberBuddy will walk you through the process as part of its installation. If you are curious you can view the required additional files at Web Workshop-Microsoft Agent Downloads (http://msdn.microsoft.com/workshop/imedia/agent/agentdl.asp). That page will also allow you to download each of the agent characters created by Microsoft, i.e. Peedy, Merlin, Genie, and Robby. However, you don't have to limit yourself to just those characters. The best place I have found to find out anything to do with the Microsoft Agent application interface is the Agentry at http://www.agentry.net/. As of this writing there are 341 agent characters and 158 applications. Some of the applications such as CyberBuddy are freeware.

CyberBuddy is written by John M. DeFino, a former IBM research engineer, who is now Director of Engineering for an Automotive Electronics company in Texas. John gives true meaning to the term telecommuting. He has been telecommuting from his home in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania to Texas for over a dozen years. CyberBuddy was originally written as a fun program for John's own computer. Then he thought others might also enjoy it. CyberBuddy is totally free. There are no ads. Nobody is trying to sell you add-on modules. Any quality program that is free like this, gets my attention! Besides, I love having my computer talk to me. It saves me having to read everything and this program provides some entertainment at the same time.

CyberBuddy About tab with Agent Characters Peedy and Merlin

CyberBuddy resides in your System Tray and provides you with a buddy who will periodically tell you the Time, check to see if you have any Email, read you the latest News Headlines, check your Stocks, and inform you of the local Weather Conditions. In addition your agent character can read a web page, text documents, or any text copied to the clipboard. Your buddy will also pop up every once in a while to compliment you with a "feel good message," give you the "thought of the day," and tell you a joke. If you need a reminder, you can program your buddy to give you advance notice of appointments, meetings, events, etc. I like this feature because if you ignore the reminder, the character becomes insistent and will not go away until you click on it, indicating you got the message. That's just a partial list of what CyberBuddy can do.

I have Peedy the Parrot as my main character. He greets me when Windows 98SE finishes loading to tell me the day and date. I have the program setup to start when Windows does. A CyberBud shortcut appears in my StartUp folder located in C:\WINDOWS\Start Menu\Programs\StartUp. If you prefer to start the program manually move the CyberBud shortcut from the StartUp folder to the Disabled Startup Items folder in your Windows 98SE Start button cascading menu. However, be sure you have a CyberBud shortcut created on your DeskTop so you can manually start the program whenever you wish. CyberBuddy can also be setup so the character performs his tasks without talking and the accompanied sound effects by going to "Quiet Time" on the program's General tab. This can be useful if you are using the program at work.

CyberBuddy Text To Speech Properties screen with Agent Characters Buttercup and PeedyA unique feature of CyberBuddy, which I have not found in other agent programs that I have tried, is you can have multiple agent characters. By going to "Characters and Speech Options" from the General tab you can set this program up with different characters for Main, Time, Email, News, Weather, Reminders, Stocks, etc. provided you have as many different characters installed on your computer. All of the MS Agent characters reside on your hard drive in C:\WINDOWS\MSAGENT\CHARS. The file extension for MS Agent characters is acs. If the character is capable of a lot of animations the file sizes can range upwards toward 4 MB. I currently have 5 characters installed which provides variety within CyberBuddy as each has different characteristics and animations. CyberBuddy even allows for many options with each character. You can change the agent size, default positions, and selected voice as well as the pitch, speed, and volume of the selected voice.

Messages your CyberBuddy characters speak are completely customizable by going to the General tab and clicking on "Custom Messages." This brings up 10 categories of messages. You can personalize the lists of existing messages and add to them giving more variety to the program.

CyberBuddy works both on and off the Internet. Obviously, certain features like getting the News and Weather or checking Email and Stocks will not work if you are not connected to the Internet. I did find one interesting phenomenon. When you are connected to the Internet, periodically your buddy will tell you your average Internet speed in bytes/second. After I had been on the Internet for a while and had been told my speed several times I disconnected but continued to work on my computer. After a while my buddy popped up again and told me my Internet speed. This caused me to laugh as when I disconnected he told me I had lost my connection. I do find the "being told I lost my connection" feature helpful.

Another feature of CyberBuddy I find very useful is checking Email. CyberBuddy will check Email for up to 50 accounts. It only works with POP3 (Post Office Protocol 3) accounts. POP3 is a standard mail server commonly used on the Internet. CyberBuddy does not work with web based Email accounts.

CyberBuddy Email tab with Agent Characters Merlin and Genie

In configuring CyberBuddy for Email you have a number of options. You can have your character read complete messages, just the "subject," or just the "from." You can instruct the character to check for new Email at specific intervals or check only when you tell it to. Originally I had CyberBuddy configured to check for new Email every 10 minutes and to only read me the "subject" and "from" parts for new messages. When new Email was discovered I was told the number of new messages in addition to the reading of the selected parts. The new messages were left on the server and I could then decide if these new messages needed my immediate attention or I could read them in detail later using my Netscape Messenger Email client. Then I decided to check the "Email Popup" box on the Email tab. This was better yet! Now I could actually see the list of messages and choose to view text based messages, have my buddy read them, or delete them. CyberBuddy basically has a built-in mini Email client. This is a great way to head off spam to your regular Email client inbox. CyberBuddy even provides an Email Filter for deleting or ignoring spam. For those new to the Internet who may not have heard the term "spam" before, a definition is in order. Spam is a slang name for unsolicited Email where copies of the same message are sent to large numbers of people on the Internet. This is usually done to advertise some product or service as well as to broadcast some political or social commentary. I'm not sure if it is really an acronym but I saw one definition saying it stood for "Spontaneous Personally Annoying eMail." I think of it as junk mail.

CyberBuddy will read text documents like other MS Agent programs but a feature I always found lacking was the ability to pause the reading midstream. This capability becomes extremely important if you are having your buddy proofread documents and need to pause periodically to make corrections. It also comes in handy if you are interrupted by a phone call or person (read that wife) entering the room. CyberBuddy does have this feature and it is implemented beautifully except for a minor glitch. Left clicking on the character pauses the reading. After one minute the character reminds you that he is still paused. After another minute the character whispers "Still waiting, 2 minutes now." After another minute I'm told the character can't wait any longer and if I still want it to wait, to click again. If I don't click, the character should start reading the document from where it left off. The minor glitch is that after you click to pause, the remaining part of the sentence the character was reading gets dropped (not read) and the following sentence is read before the pause takes effect.

If you are a investor in the Stock Market (aren't we all?), CyberBuddy will be your market watcher. Just type in your Stock and Mutual Fund symbols and CyberBuddy will check at time intervals you designate for any price change, a positive change, a negative change, or price change outside of limits you set for each entry. Your buddy can also report the trade volume and last transaction time. Here again I found my buddy unexpectedly entertaining and amusing. A stock in my list has the symbol VOL. My buddy reports that as "5 O L." He must be into roman numerals! Better yet, he reports my Munder mutual fund with the symbol MNNCX as "M N North Carolina X" and another mutual fund with the symbol PRSCX as "P R South Carolina X." Guess he knows his state abbreviations! CyberBuddy uses Yahoo! Finance (http://finance.yahoo.com/) to get this data. You can also add indexes to the lookup but you need to know the proper symbol. For example the symbol for the Dow Jones Industrials is ^DJI and for the NASDAQ Composite is ^IXIC.

CyberBuddy has additional features built into it such as the ability to check web pages you designate for changes and to send and receive instant messages. The instant message feature is similar to the program ICQ (http://www.icq.com) in that you will know when your friends are online but the messaging is unique in that your messages can be read and animated by your character. You can even send voice messages. It was quite funny to see Peedy the Parrot's beak moving but my voice coming out.

After installing CyberBuddy and starting the program the first time, I would advise taking the tour to get a quick overview. The program also has an excellent Help file and more information can be found on the CyberBuddy web site. The web site has pages of Screen shots (http://www.yeayou.com/cyberbuddy/Page5.html) as well as FAQ and Troubleshooting (http://www.yeayou.com/cyberbuddy/Page7.html). An additional free program on the web site called CyberBuddy Story Builder (http://www.yeayou.com/cyberbuddy/Page36.html) may be of interest to parents (or grandparents) with youngsters.

One feature MagicSpell had that would be great in CyberBuddy is speech recognition! Well guess what? John DeFino must have read my mind. As I was about to submit this article to meet the April PC Journal deadline I did one more check of article links to ensure they were correct. Checking the CyberBuddy home page I found versions 3 and 4 with speech recognition capability are now available. Both new versions use the Microsoft Speech Recognition Engine. Version 4 also includes a telephone function for Speech Phone Dialing (with an internal phone book) and Caller ID. Unfortunately versions 3 and 4 are only available via a CyberBuddy CD-ROM and not by direct download. Read all about CyberBuddy with Speech Recognition at http://thecyberbuddy.com/speechrecognition/.

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.