I hadn't heard of BrainShark until I saw a recent Line56 article about them. The company has taken an interesting approach to competing in the web conferencing market. They concentrate solely on providing prerecorded presentations that interested parties can view on their own schedule. There is no attempt to add interactive features used in live events. It's an interesting niche, and I had a talk with their VP of Marketing and tried out the software myself.
With BrainShark, you start by uploading a PowerPoint presentation to their production site. A small test presentation with only 8 slides, but tons of animation effects and graphics took several minutes to convert. You can go logout while the conversion process takes place and wait for a notification email to tell you it is safe to continue. The next step is to dial in on a private phone number that links you to your presentation. Then you can narrate your slides over the telephone, advancing each slide manually. You can record a slide at a time, or do a continuous recording through the entire set. When you finish recording, another several-minute conversion process assembles the audio and video into a streaming file that is hosted on BrainShark's server. They send you a URL that you can publicize or email to people.
An interested party clicks on the link and views your presentation. They can skip directly to slides of interest using BrainShark's proprietary viewing utility. Rather neatly, the software detects whether the user's computer has RealMedia, Windows Media Viewer, or Flash available for automatic playback in any of those formats. It will also detect a computer without an audio card and offer a telephone number for the person to dial so they can hear the audio over the phone.
There are a few very clever features for large enterprise use. You can provide an instant "talk to a representative" button in the presentation viewer (it can be configured for on- and off-hours availability). You can have the viewing party interact through polls and surveys and have the results summarized and emailed to you. You can get instant notification sent to various parties in your organization so they can follow up with a contact after the person has finished viewing the event. There is also a tie-in to Microsoft Live Meeting if a rep from your company wants to initiate a two-way interactive web conference with the viewer.
When I tried out the software, I was pleased with the easy to use interface and the clear instructions. The difficult graphics in my torture test slide set came out clearly. The recorded audio was crisp and clear. On the negative side, the advanced animation and slide transitions I use to torture web conferencing packages failed miserably. Simple effects like fade in or a wipe came through just fine. But PowerPoint 2003 additions like spinning or point-to-point movement sometimes failed in an ugly manner. One slide with lots of point-to-point animation got completely lost and just hung up several component pieces in a weird overlay. The software also does not convert any automatic animations... you must manually click through each animated element. If you use the software, it is extremely important to check your converted set for proper animation conversion.
I think this is a fascinating niche application of on-demand web presentations. Most interactive web conferencing providers let you record a live event for later archival viewing, but this is the first one I've seen that approaches the problem from a "studio production" perspective. They don't expect you to have a live event at all. I could easily see the value in this approach for one of my clients who is attempting to reach a general consumer market. It is hard to deliver a web presentation at a convenient time for working people on a non-work subject. They can't just take 45 minutes out of their work day to watch a personal informational presentation. But with BrainShark, they could watch the presentation at their own convenience... during their lunch break or at home after they have put the kiddies to bed.
For those of you unfamiliar with my standard disclaimer, I do not represent, resell, or take advertising or financial considerations from any technology vendor. I also do not invest in web collaboration technology stocks. I try to remain completely untainted by outside influences in arriving at my personal opinions of companies, software, and relevant news to report. All errors in representing a piece of software's functionality are my own. So there.