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Replacing messages theater: more screen-sharing alternatives

Joe Kissell | April 21, 2014
Apple's iChat had a wonderful feature called iChat Theater--also present in the Mountain Lion version of Messages, just without the "iChat" in its name--that let you share photos, PDFs, or Keynote presentations during a video chat. I used it countless times to give virtual presentations: An audience watching on a projection screen in a remote location could see video of me alongside my Keynote presentation, and I could see video of the audience plus a miniature view of my presentation (and anything else on my screen, such as my email or a Web browser).

Apple's iChat had a wonderful feature called iChat Theater — also present in the Mountain Lion version of Messages, just without the "iChat" in its name that let you share photos, PDFs, or Keynote presentations during a video chat. I used it countless times to give virtual presentations: An audience watching on a projection screen in a remote location could see video of me alongside my Keynote presentation, and I could see video of the audience plus a miniature view of my presentation (and anything else on my screen, such as my email or a Web browser).

But then Theater disappeared in the Mavericks version of Messages.

In a recent Mac 911 column, Chris Breen suggested a couple of workarounds. I'd like to share a few more, and add my own take on one of Chris's suggestions.

Back to Mountain Lion

Chris's first suggestion was also the first thing I tried to do when Theater disappeared: boot my Mac from a spare hard drive containing Mountain Lion and use the older version of Messages. That works pretty well, but I encountered a few gotchas that you might want to consider before taking that route.

First is the hassle of rebooting — even if I don't do it frequently, I still have to make sure that all the files, apps, and other resources I need are available from the spare drive.

Second, if the audience's Mac is running Mavericks, Theater still works, but instead of showing my video beside my presentation, it uses a picture-in-picture view (with a movable inset). So I must leave extra room for the inset picture on all my slides.

As an alternative to booting from an external drive, I tried running Mountain Lion in a virtual machine on my Mavericks Mac using VMware Fusion. Unfortunately, even after routing my camera to the virtual machine, Messages couldn't see it — neither my internal FaceTime camera nor an external USB webcam. I tried the same thing in Parallels Desktop, and although it appeared to work a bit better (Messages could access my camera, at least), I couldn't see the video of the audience or myself, and the audience couldn't see my Keynote presentation.

Third-party challenges

Which led me to consider third-party apps and services for videoconferencing, webinars, and virtual meetings of all sorts. After trying about a dozen of them, I've noticed some trends.

Almost all third-party video/screen-sharing solutions require either a downloaded app or a Flash-based browser interface (with its attendant performance and compatibility concerns). Some also require the audience to set up an account before viewing a presentation. With iChat or Messages, I could count on the fact that pretty much any Mac user would have the necessary hardware, software, and account setup. Not so with the third-party solutions.

 

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