Web Based Content Creation Tools (a.viary.com BETA)

08Jul08

A few months ago I was looking around for some info on the GNU Image Manipulation Program (aka GIMP) and I discovered this product called “Aviary“. It’s a suite of web based applications built on Flash. After exploring the site a bit I discovered that the Aviary is actually a pretty large quite of applications with everything from image editing, to audio and video editing as well as desktop publishing and even marketing. My interest being rather high, I signed up. Last week I got my invitation to set up an account at the Aviary. It looks quite interesting.

They granted me access to Phoenix (their image editor) and Peacock (their algorithm based pattern generator. I suspect that only these applications were given to me since they are likely to be of general interest. Perhaps access to the other applications in the suite will happen if I make good use of the apps I have been granted access to, I’m not sure.

Phoenix is pretty basic. It contains the usual subset of generic tools that you would find in Photoshop. You can either start from scratch, or you can upload an image to work on. At the moment the file formats you can import or export are somewhat limited (png, tiff, jpg, gif) but this is a beta so it shouldn’t be a surprise. (I also want to mention that they use their own proprietary format for storing work on their side. The .EGG file format. .EGG appears to be something that all the apps can use.) Phoenix can do layers, the usual filters like blur and emboss, color fills, gradient fills and a whole lot more. It looks a bit spare compared to Photoshop or GIMP but I think that’s partially because of the way they designed the UI. Performance-wise, Phoenix is decent. I’ve noticed some lagginess when using the brush tool, but this may be a factor of the Flash plugin more than Phoenix. I’ll note that I am using Aviary in Firefox 2.x with Flash 9 on Gentoo Linux. I don’t know what the experience on Windows with IE is like, but it may be slightly better since Flash seems a bit more mature in Windows. I won’t talk about Phoenix more at this point since it’s really pretty much on par with the main features of Photoshop and GIMP and will obviously grow.

Peacock, on the other hand, is quite interesting. If anyone is familiar with the use or concepts behind analog synthesizer modules, Peacock does the same thing, only for images instead of sound. You start off with a tab bar down the left side of your screen. You have the option to choose from Generators, Effects, Controllers, and Resources. The generators are functions that create a basic shape, image or pattern. They have a few different kinds of noise, a 3D warp grid, a spirograph styled pattern, and a few others. You drag and drop a generator onto your workspace and it automatically connects to the canvas object with a “cable” (I’m making up some of these terms as I’ve not seen any documentation that explains what their terminology is).

Depending on which object you have currently selected, there are a range of settings you can adjust in the right hand pane. For the generator objects these are usually setting that determine color, shape, size, position, output level, etc… For the canvas object, you only have the ability to adjust the size (it defaults to 800×600 pixels). Next you have the effect objects. There are a significantly higher number of effect than generator objects. Some examples are glow, drop shadow, and seamless. Like the other objects, you drag and drop a filter onto the workspace. If you put it on the “cable” connecting the generator to the canvas it will automatically insert itself into the connection path. Once it’s attached and you select the effect object, you can again adjust parameters in the right hand pane to control the effect.

The controller objects are used to do things like blending (mixing two or more outputs from a chain of generator and effect objects), splitting, combining or splitting color channels and a few other functions. When using the blending object, you have ten inputs. You just “plug in” the output of some other object(s) into each input. Then with the blend object selected, you can adjust the relationship between the objects. Generally the relationship is comprised of the blend mode (like GIMP’s Normal, Add, Subtract, Multiply, etc…) and it’s intensity value. The end results can be very interesting.

Finally, there is the resources tab. Here you can pull in either images that you’ve uploaded to your “MyAviary” storage area or .EGG files from previously saved work in Aviary. At this point I did run into something odd. The imported resource didn’t show up. It was something I created in Peacock itself so maybe that was the issue. I will likely wind up explaining what I was doing to see if it might be a bug. The people behind Aviary want bug reports and feature requests since they are in beta. I suspect that if I participate and make good use of the applications, I may be granted access to some of the other applications in their suite as I’m interested in their video and audio editing applications. That’s all supposition on my part though.

Some of the nicer features I’ve found in my limited time exploring the applications are:

1. Tags in the file save dialog box

2. File open dialogs allow you to pull from: your local machine, a URL, your MyAviary storage space, Flickr, Picassa and Facebook

3. Although it takes getting used to initially, the workspace approach is not your typical MDI (multiple document interface). You have a solid workspace for your work to be done on and the tools aren’t palettes but are instead boxes that you can expand out to access variants of a particular tool type or you can compress back into just a small box.

Overall, I’m pretty impressed with Aviary. But at the moment I have no idea what their business model is or what will happen once the beta is over. Having centralized applications and data that are cross platform and that are accessible from nearly anywhere is very nice, but only if your data and the applications will still be there essentially forever. Technically, I also wonder about the limitations of writing the application in Flash. I noticed that running filters on larger photos is a lot slower than running them in GIMP locally. I suspect that this is a function of Flash not necessarily being optimized for the heavy number crunching that the filters do. However, it could also be due to the Linux Flash plugin. So I’ll probably reserve my final judgment until I see their full product. For now, it’s all a very nice diversion.

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One Response to “Web Based Content Creation Tools (a.viary.com BETA)”

  1. Wow, thanks for the tip-off.

    The Pattern Generation in Peacock Teaser makes it look extremely cool (and too easy!)


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