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Tech Lab

Internet video with a brain

I like dumb Internet videos as much as the next fellow. But you can only watch “Charlie bit my finger” so many times. Happily, online video is getting smarter, thanks to an impressive new app for the iPad. It’s called Touchcast, and it lets video creators inject live Internet data right into their movies.

Touchcast is a free app for Apple Inc.’s iPad tablets; versions for other computing platforms are under development. Touchcast is also an online video service that uses its unique technology to deliver the videos created by users.

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The Touchcast moviemaking app includes a number of familiar features, including Instagram-like special video effects and a “green screen” gadget that lets you create instant video backdrops out of photos stored on the iPad. There’s also a whiteboard feature so you can write or draw on the tablet’s screen and have the results show up in the video. Like Vine and other video programs, Touchcast sets a limit on the size of your creations. But you get a lot more than Vine’s six seconds to work with. Five minutes is the limit here.

The real fun begins when you start creating “vapps.” That’s Touchcast’s rather unfortunate name for its coolest feature — little apps that can be embedded inside the videos that you shoot. Actually, these vapps run on Touchcast’s own servers and are synchronized with the video. The apps act like little Internet services running on top of or alongside the video.

Say you want your video to include a stream of Twitter messages about the new iPhones from Apple. Launch the Twitter vapp, and have it look for “iPhone.” It will display the latest messages that mention the word. A small Twitter window appears on screen, lying on top of your video. You can also store the vapp in a toolbar at the bottom of the page. Or you might want to include Apple’s Web page. There’s a vapp for that. Punch in the address, and the page can be added to the video.

You can’t get too greedy with vapps. Each of them takes up space on the screen, so if you use more than two or three, they will crowd out the rest of the video.

When your viewer clicks on a vapp, it comes to life. Fire up the Twitter vapp and it becomes a live window into the messaging service, showing the latest comments on the iPhone. Click the link to Apple’s Web page, and there it is, with your video still streaming away in a corner of the screen.

This picture-in-picture effect is especially slick when you link to an Internet video. For instance, Apple has posted some videos of the new phones. You can link to one of these videos, and have it run in the foreground, while you appear alongside, praising the Apple video or poking fun at it.

Flashy, yes — and very practical. Imagine a schoolteacher creating a mini-lecture on the Vietnam War, complete with links to online videos and history websites. Or a corporate sales video with links to a photo gallery of the company’s products and its Facebook page.

Touchcast has plenty of limitations. It’s pretty buggy for an iPad app. Links to Twitter feeds didn’t work until I complained to the company and they put in a fix. Also, I’ve never gotten the news ticker to work properly. In addition, the company hasn’t bothered to provide a detailed user guide. One of the developers told me that the software was so intuitive that users wouldn’t need one. Well, this user certainly did.

In addition, Touchcast videos lose a lot in translation. The service lets you post your videos to YouTube, the world’s most popular video streaming site. But this kills the interactive features that make Touchcast so cool; these only work when the video is streamed from Touchcast.com. Even then, you’ve got to use the Apple Safari or Google Chrome browsers, because Touchcast videos don’t run on Microsoft Corp.’s Internet Explorer or the Firefox browser.

And one more thing: Could this be the next PowerPoint? Just as Microsoft’s slideshow program made it all too easy to create ugly, boring presentations, Touchcast could spawn a plague of overwrought video clips, bloated with hyperactive hyperlinks.

I’ll take that chance. Internet video could use a brain transplant, and Touchcast might just be the right tool for the job.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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