How many times have users asked you to sit down at their computers and show them what steps they need to take to perform a certain function or operation? These kinds of hands-on tutorials can be really helpful to end users because once they see exactly how it’s done, they can duplicate those steps. Unfortunately, taking the time to physically provide hands-on tutorials to each user who asks isn’t really a good use of your time. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could easily create custom technical-support training videos without investing in expensive software? Actually, you can.
When Microsoft introduced Office 97 Professional, it included a set of bonus applications and features on the CD called ValuPack. One of these bonus applications was the Microsoft Camcorder tool; it’s basically a screen recorder that allows you to record actions you perform on a computer as a video, which you can then save as a stand-alone (.exe) file that can be played back in any Windows operating system.
Creating technical-support training videos with Microsoft Camcorder is easy and will save you hours. Even if you don’t have a Microsoft Office 97 Professional CD lying around, you can still download Camcorder from the Internet. I’ll show you how to install and use Camcorder to create your own technical-support training videos. I’ll also point out a few tricks you can use to your advantage and a few traps to avoid.
Before I get started, I need to point out that Microsoft Camcorder can be installed and used to record videos only in Windows 9x/Me. You can install Microsoft Camcorder in Windows NT, 2000, or XP, but the package will display an error message when you attempt to run it. Camcorder fails to run in XP even when configured for Compatibility mode.
Also, keep in mind that Microsoft no longer officially supports Camcorder. Furthermore, there isn’t an update to this version 1.0 product. Despite these minor shortfalls, Microsoft Camcorder is still a very useful tool to have in your arsenal.
Finding and installing Microsoft Camcorder
If you happen to have an Office 97 Professional CD in your collection of obsolete software, dig it out. You’ll find the Microsoft Camcorder installation package, Camcordr.exe, on the CD in the Valupak\Mscam folder.
If you don’t have the Office 97 Professional CD, you can download Microsoft Camcorder from the Internet. After Office 97 was on the market for a while, Microsoft released Camcorder as a free download. It used to be available on Microsoft’s Office site, but once Office 2000 was released, the Microsoft Camcorder page disappeared.
Several Internet sites still have free copies of Microsoft Camcorder in their archives. For example, you can download Microsoft Camcorder from the Actrix site.
Once you’ve downloaded the package or accessed it on the CD, double-click the executable file, and you’ll be prompted to confirm the installation. Then, just follow the on-screen instructions. After the installation procedure is complete, you’ll find the Microsoft Camcorder shortcut on the Start/Programs menu.
An Easter egg
If you’re so inclined, you can uncover an Easter egg in Microsoft Camcorder that shows a video of the faces and names of the people involved in the production of this little software application. To see the Easter egg, launch Microsoft Camcorder, pull down the Help menu, and choose About Microsoft Camcorder. When you see the dialog box, simultaneously press and hold down the [Ctrl] and [Shift] keys as you consecutively press the M, S, C, A, and M keys. As soon as you do, the video will begin playing. To exit the video, press the [Esc] key.
Planning your video
Like any presentation, creating a technical-support training video in Microsoft Camcorder takes some planning and preparation. Proper planning will allow you to create an efficient and polished video.
In this case, you’re going to present a series of steps that the viewer will use to perform some task. Your planning will consist of knowing exactly where the menus, dialog boxes, and settings are before you begin. Once you begin recording, you will be able to smoothly navigate from one area to the next as you perform the task. This preparation will produce a video that’s easy to follow, and it will also result in a more conservatively sized video file.
For example, I recorded a training video showing the task of deleting Internet Explorer’s temporary Internet files, clearing the History list, and clearing the AutoComplete history without doing any planning or preparation first. As I navigated my mouse pointer from one place to the next, I paused a couple of times as I looked for the next stop. As I did, my mouse pointer wandered a bit before moving on. While this type of hesitation is perfectly normal when you’re performing the operation in your day-to-day activities, it really looked sloppy in the video. Furthermore, those extra few moments added to the size of the resulting video, which ended up being almost 300 KB. After I practiced the operation several times and then recorded it, the file size was 156 KB. You can download this sample file, Clear IEX.exe, to see what I mean.
Keep in mind that you don’t really want to be a speed demon racing your mouse pointer from one place to the next. You’ll want to use very determined but fluid movements.
Camcorder has the capability to record audio from a microphone attached to your sound card. This will allow you to add narration to your technical-support training video.
Adding audio to your video will increase the file size, but if you write out your script and practice it while performing the task before actually recording the video, you should be able to keep the file size within reason. For instance, narrating my example Internet Explorer video resulted in a 5-MB file.
Recording a video
Once you launch Camcorder, you’ll see its window appear at the top of your screen. The window is really nothing more than a toolbar that contains three self-explanatory VCR-style buttons, as shown in Figure A.
|Camcorder’s main window is simply a toolbar containing three VCR-style buttons.|
To begin, you’ll want to pull down the Movie menu and select Preferences. In the Preferences dialog box, select both the Hide Stop Button While Recording and the Hide Stop Button While Playing check boxes, as shown in Figure B.
|The Stop button adds an unnecessary distraction, so you’ll want to disable it.|
You can easily stop the recording and the playback with a keystroke, which by default is set to the [Esc] key. You can change this to any one of the other available keystrokes in the Stop Key pane of the Preferences dialog box.
If you plan to narrate your video, select the Capture Audio check box. You’ll then want to click the Change button and set the audio recording format’s attributes. When you do, you’ll see the Sound Selection dialog box.
By default, Camcorder is configured to record audio using the PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) format. While this format is perfect for recording voice, the default Attributes setting of 8,000 Hz, 8 Bit, Mono creates a fuzzy-sounding recording. I suggest that you move up to the 8,000 Hz, 16 Bit, Stereo setting, as shown in Figure C. This setting provides a very crisp voice recording. You can move up the scale if you prefer a better-sounding voice recording, but keep in mind that doing so will increase the file size.
|If you’ll be narrating your video, you’ll get better voice recording if you select the 8,000 Hz, 16 Bit, Stereo setting in the Attributes drop-down list box.|
Once you’ve made these adjustments and closed the Preferences dialog box, you’ll be ready to record your video. To do so, click the Record button and the Camcorder window will disappear, so you can begin recording your video. As soon as you’re finished, press [Esc] to stop recording.
When you see the Camcorder window, you can preview the video by clicking the Play button. You can then save the file by pulling down the File menu and selecting the Create Standalone Movie command. You’ll then be prompted for a name and location to save the executable file. As Camcorder saves the video, you’ll see the animated progress window shown in Figure D. As soon as the video is saved to an executable file, you can run it in any Windows operating system.
|As Camcorder compresses the video into a stand-alone executable file, you’ll see a progress window.|
Running the video
When your users run the executable file, Camcorder will appear to completely take over the system as it plays the video. As the video plays, users will notice that their cursor changes into an image of a video camera to distinguish it from the one in the video.
When the video finishes playing, users will momentarily see a Microsoft Office splash screen before returning to the desktop. Users can terminate the video at any time by pressing the [Esc] key.
Some tricks and tips
Creating the actual video is a pretty straightforward procedure, but a few tips and tricks will save you time and frustration.
If your training video will show the Windows desktop, keep in mind that using wallpaper on your desktop will greatly increase the size of the video file. You’ll want to disable the wallpaper.
Fancy desktop themes will also increase the size of the video file. Use the standard Windows colors.
Some video cards offer an astonishing number of colors for the color palette. I’ve discovered that using some of the higher-level color palettes caused both recording and playback problems, though. I found that the lower-end 16-bit or 32-bit color palettes worked just fine.
When you record a video with Camcorder, along with your actions it also records the current video resolution of the computer. This means that if you record a movie on a system that is using a video resolution of 800 x 600 and then play it back on a different system that is using a video resolution of 1,024 x 768, the movie will play back in a window that is 800 x 600. If you maximize the window, the movie will appear as though it’s been cropped, and portions of the screen won’t be visible. If you record a movie using a video resolution of 800 x 600, you should instruct users playing the movie to set their video resolution to 800 x 600 for optimal viewing.
While Camcorder will allow you to save the file in AVI format, this particular version of AVI is such an early incarnation of the format that it can be played back only by Camcorder itself or on a system that has the ActiveMovie application (also a part of the Office 97 ValuPack) installed. In other words, Windows Media Player can’t play the AVI. However, if you save the file as a stand-alone executable, the video can be played back in any version of Windows.
Recording MS-DOS-based applications
If the application that you want to document in a technical-support video is an MS-DOS-based application, you must record the application in an MS-DOS window. Camcorder cannot record full-screen MS-DOS-based applications.
A final word on using narration
Narrating your technical-support training videos will take a lot of time both in the preparation stage and in the actual recording. If you’ve seen any of the TV Bloopers shows, you know what I’m talking about. You may want to record your videos without narration. The video itself should be all users really need, and you can always accompany the video with a short, typewritten explanation.
Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.