Review By Jason Knott
At the 2006 VisMasters Design Modeling and Visualization Conference (DMVC) in Boston, I happened to stop at a rather unassuming table that, if I remember right, had only a laptop and a few pieces of paper on it. I had no idea what was being pitched at the table, but I'm sure glad I stopped to ask. The gentleman I spoke with that day was Stuart Feldman. I didn't know it then, but I later found out that Stuart was a founder of Lightscape Technologies, Inc and after its acquisition by Autodesk, the Product Manager for 3ds VIZ.
The software he was pitching that day was his latest venture, 'Cozimo', which on it's home page is described as “...a smarter, easier and more advanced way to review and collaborate on images, video and other digital media with colleagues and clients.” The software wasn't quite in Beta yet but I was told that it would allow me to post images of my work and then review them using markup tools in real time with my clients, wherever they were located. I remember getting pretty excited at that point since I was actively seeking such a tool to improve our communications with clients.
If you've ever had a client print out one of your renderings, mark it up with a pen and then fax it back to you, you know how much fun that can be! The paper is often a large black blob, usually with little bits of barely recognizable writing poking out in the areas that are not completely black. Besides being difficult to read, it's also one more piece of paper on your desk that can easily get lost, misplaced or forgotten if you are not very disciplined with your filing system.
I left Stuart my name, and a month or two later I signed up as a beta tester for the software. We started using it right away with some of our more tech-savvy clients and, even at that early stage of development, I could see the potential in the service.
It's hard to describe my excitement the first time I was on the phone with a client in another city, with both of us looking at a rendering on Cozimo and being able to point at things and draw interactively with the various tools available. If you've ever tried to translate a fax like I described earlier, you will surely relate!
How it works
To use Cozimo, you need to set up a user account in a typical fashion. Once you've signed up you can create any number of workgroups, depending on the service plan you subscribe to. The free, 'Personal' plan allows for one workgroup and 10MB of space. There are several other paid plans, starting at $29 (4 workgroups and 250MB storage) leading up to the $149/mo. 'Maximum' plan (unlimited workgroups and 5GB storage). Once you have your account, you can upload image, PDF, and video files to folders that you create for your workgroups. We generally organize our workgroups according to our client's names, so 'Client_A' would be one workgroup and 'Client_B' would be another. Inside that workgroup, we create folders that represent either individual jobs or stages of a job.
Once you've created a workgroup and added content to a folder, Cozimo allows you to send invitations to 3rd parties so that they can join the workgroup with you. An invited person receives an email from Cozimo with a link to the new account page where they can sign up and then are sent directly to the workgroup.
Clicking on a thumbnail image brings up the 'Collaboration Viewer' which is where you can interact with the image, either on your own or with others.
|The buttons on the tools panel are pretty obvious if you've ever used a typical drawing program. The top row provides pan and zoom tools. The second row allows you to create arrows, lines and to draw freehand. Basic open and filled shapes are in the third row. There's a 'Zoom to Fit' button in the forth row and another for zoom 1:1 that will match the screen resolution to the image resolution to give you full fidelity.|
I find the 'Region of Interest' tool to be the one I use most when collaborating with others, since it enables you to draw attention to an area of the image that you wish to discuss, without actually drawing on the image. This avoids the, 'look at the railing to the right of the tree beside the red car' discussion.
The 'Note" tool is also very handy in that it allows you to leave text, referenced to an area of the image, that is time and date stamped. You or your client can add to the note at any time simply by typing text in the box near the bottom and hitting enter. Note that if you don't hit enter, either on the keyboard or with the orange button near the text entry box, your text will be lost. We've unfortunately had it happen a few times where a client has left us a bunch of empty notes because they weren't clear on this.
The last row allows you to rotate the image, particularly handy with PDF files, and gives you an eraser in case you wish to remove something you've drawn. It's worth noting that you can only erase things (or move a note) that you yourself have created.
Below the main tool section is an area allowing you to define the color, lineweight and transparency of the drawing tools, also very handy.
For anyone with a reasonable amount of computer experience and a basic understanding of drawing tools, learning Cozimo seems to be pretty quick. Unfortunately, not everyone that we work with fits that description and we have had a few clients who got frustrated using the service. To try and alleviate any stress for people, I generally customize our workgroup invitations to include a request that they call me so that I can walk them through the service the first time they log in. This seems to have resolved most of the issues that people have had. I've also taken to setting up accounts for our clients myself rather than having them do it. Not that the process is difficult, it just makes it that much easier for them.
Being able to work like this on an image file is great, but Cozimo also lets you upload PDF files and video too. Not too long ago I uploaded a multi-page contract to Cozimo as a PDF file and then went through it with my client using the "Presenter" mode. This allowed me to control which page of the document my client was seeing while we were going through the line items. All the standard tools could be used to mark things up as we discussed changes that needed to be made.
Video collaboration was added about half way through the beta testing period and was a very welcome addition. We typically create high quality WMV files of our animations for review and now we can upload them to Cozimo and use it's tools to make annotations over specific frames in the video. The annotations appear for only a few frames and then fade out. Their locations are indicated by marks on the control timeline. You can shuttle or step forward through the timeline and the notes fade in over the frame where they were created. This has been a fantastic help to us since it is now very easy to make specific comments about things in the video with great clarity. Here too, when in 'Presenter' mode, you can control the timeline and synchronize the playback for everyone you are on-line with.
There are other features in Cozimo, but I'm limiting my comments to the ones that I'm most familiar with and use regularly. For a tour of the service produced by the developer, please have a look here.
I'm not a huge fan of reviews that seem more like advertorials than unbiased reviews, so part of me would like to be able to pick out a bunch of flaws to present here, but in truth I don't have many negative things to say about Cozimo. The few problems we've had with the service were in beta and were addressed quickly and often resolved the same day. Since Cozimo has gone live, that level of support has been maintained, and they seem to be adding wishlist items on a fairly regular basis. One thing I would still like to see is a link to some sort of presentation that walks people through the basic features and how to use the tools so that I don't have to give my own tours.
The biggest issue we had with Cozimo on occasion, was getting it to work at all for clients who have major firewalls. As I understand it, the service requires two-way communication of information using Flash on specific ports and some firewalls are not set up to allow that. Generally, we've been able to get around the problem simply by asking their IT department open the required port. My understanding is that the developers have recently addressed this problem and Cozimo should now work through virtually any firewall configuration.
During the writing of this review I sent an email to several of our clients who have used the service with us, asking for general feedback. Here is one response that I think sums it up well, "I think that Cozimo is a great tool for working on our virtual projects, and wish that some of our other suppliers would pick it up as it was a great time saving tool and so easy to supply feedback. The program was easy to use and a great interactive method to conduct our business."
After having used it for almost exactly a year, Cozimo has become an integral part of how we communicate with our clients and keep track of changes on our projects. I can say that I'm completely sold on it and feel it is certainly worth the expense.
My advice would be to try it out for yourself using the free personal account and see how it works for you.
For more information about Cozimo, or to give it a try, you can visit the site here.
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