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In my opinion

The end of PowerPoint?

Affordable high-quality animations may mark the death of stodgy PowerPoint presentations.


I just returned home from yet another scientific conference. My mind is imbued with new facts and buzzing with ideas for future research. But I am exhausted from the traveling, the overindulging of coffee and cookies, and the enthusiastic conversations with colleagues. I will sleep well tonight. And, as I’ve learned from experience, my jetlagged dreams will be an endless stream of PowerPoint slides. Such is the fate of the traveling academic.

Over the years, I have become something of a PowerPoint connoisseur. I know all the tricks (bright room = white background + dark text), the dos and don’ts (keep it simple and cut those silly transitions) and, like most of us, I ignore them half of the time (I’m an inveterate bullet-point addict). At conferences, I’m reminded of the pivotal role PowerPoint – and its Apple counterpart, Keynote – has in scientific communication, how well and poorly it can be executed, and its great potential and many limitations for teaching.

But something unexpected happened at this recent academic meeting. On the second day, one of the invited speakers was elegantly progressing through a typical PowerPoint presentation when suddenly one of his slides came to life in an eye-catching 3D scientific animation. At once, everyone in the audience glanced up from their smartphones and tables to marvel at the movie.

I’ve seen many lecturers incorporate video into their talks, but in these past instances the clips were almost always of news interviews, documentary films or “home footage” from the laboratory or field. This time it was altogether different. The animation was professionally made for the speaker and tailored for the audience and meeting. Altogether, it lasted about five minutes, beginning with real (though scripted) footage of experiments being carried out in the lab, followed by a dazzling 3D animation of the malaria parasite lifecycle, highlighting stages pertinent to the research talk. Certain segments of the video had audio, whereas other parts were silent, allowing the speaker to elaborate in his own words on various details. When the video ended, the speaker switched back to standard PowerPoint slides, which for me felt like swapping a delicious fizzy drink for a mug of lukewarm tea. The video was such an attention grabber that it was hard to go back to flat, lifeless text and inert 2D figures.

However, I didn’t have long to complain. Later that morning it happened again: a keynote speaker began his talk with a custom-made digital animation of the molecular mechanisms that gave rise to complex cells. I was so taken with the intricate and stunning details of the molecular machines that at times I lost track of the message; perhaps my scientific mind is trained to digest PowerPoint, not video. Nevertheless, the animation remained in my thoughts long after the talk finished.

Later, I chatted with one of the speakers about his video and learned that it was produced commercially by a research scientist turned professional animator, cost at least a few thousand dollars, and was relatively time-consuming to make, involving a lot of scripting and editing. Overall, however, the speaker felt that it was worth the money and effort. “It’s a good investment,” he said. He could use the video at other conferences and talks, incorporate it into his teaching and departmental seminars, and use it for lab promotion and outreach. Indeed, high-quality videos are perfect add-ons to departmental and personal research websites and can be easily sent to colleagues, students, and journalists.

Admittedly, both of the researchers that showed videos at the meeting have well-funded, high-profile research programs, with enough resources to purchase non-essential materials, like sophisticated animations. Such an option is likely not possible for smaller lab groups that operate on tight budgets. But that may soon change.

With the arrival of novel, inexpensive multimedia technologies, a number of companies have started to advertise competitive pricing for professional scientific animations and promotional videos. Google the words “scientific animations services” and you’ll find a slew of biotech startups offering innovative communication tools for researchers and educators. For example, Stroma Studies, an award-winning scientific interactive studio in Seattle, boasts that it “can help with your animation needs at any step of the way, including consulting on content, script, storyboarding, 3D modeling and … compositing,” all within a framework that “fits in your budget.” Similarly, XVIVO markets itself as a provider of “internationally acclaimed 3D animation[s] for pharmaceutical companies, biotech companies, medical device firms, advertising agencies, educational organizations, museums and broadcast[ers].” Both Stroma Studies and XVIVO make a point of highlighting their passion for scientific accuracy and visual excellence and promote the fact that they have highly trained scientists and digital artists on staff.

All of this is great news for scientists, students and educators. It is also an example of the types of new industries that are opening up for science graduates and of the way PhDs are using their skills in diverse ways. Does it mark the end of PowerPoint? Not yet. But I think I speak for many academics when I say that it is about time we let go of those cheesy themes, lame fonts, awkward colour combinations, and started embracing new ways to communicate our research in the classroom, conference halls, and beyond.

David Smith is an assistant professor in the biology department at Western University.

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  1. Brandon Univ prof / October 21, 2015 at 15:41

    Thanks for this. I use video (You Tube and text book supplied) in some of my classes, but have found a curious response from the students. They don’t take video in lecture seriously as a learning tool.

    I used a great video of a coelacanth to show how it paddled its lobe fins just like a tetrapod, and a great animation of Burgess shale animals to illustrate the Cambrian explosion diversity of life forms and new ecology of top predators – all nicely tied into the lecture topic and the chapter in their 3rd year Evolution text. Another (in a 2nd year ecology class) animation showed the algal symbionts in a coral and the exchange of energy and nutrients, and a short ‘interview piece’ ‘Plants are cool too’ out of the US had a catchy tune and spoke directly to what was in lab that day.

    A big yawn from the class and even a complaint in class and later in my student evaluation that I wasn’t ‘serious about teaching’ rebuking me for departing from the obligatory series of PowerPoint slides of bullet points ad nauseum.

    Maybe its the small town Prairie conservatism of Brandon MB.

    Your article will re-inspire me to charge forth with even more animations and video!

    • Clemon George / October 25, 2015 at 10:36

      Kudos David, I too think that animations are great pieces for class engagement. But like Brandon Univ prof says, they can be detrimental to a professor’s progress through the ranks. Tedx series are great to incorporate in class but students do complain that they paid to hear the professor and not some per-recorded information. Worse, your colleagues will believe that those low student scores were obtained because you do not put in place practices that show a promising future as a professor. So, be innovative once you have been tenured. Otherwise, stick to those rote PowerPoints and information ‘as they appear’ in the textbook.

      • Lachlan / October 29, 2015 at 05:14

        I think you are missing the point if you think that just inserting some videos into a lecture is going to cut it, especially if they are someone else’s that you just hit play on and then you sit down for the whole video.

  2. Luke Goetting / October 23, 2015 at 09:37

    Great points David – definitely any visual aid that can better engage the audience at an event like that is worth looking into! The exciting thing is there are plenty of affordable tools available now for creating video content, integrating media resources and creating “hybrid” presentations that abandon slides for more dynamic and interactive presentations.

    Hopefully advocates like you can help presenters realize how differently the audience reacts when the speaker invests time into his / her visual aids!

  3. Nicholas Woolridge / October 26, 2015 at 14:01

    An exciting article, though I should admit my bias: I am the director of the only program in Canada that specifically trains graduate students to do the kinds of advanced animations (and other didactic media) you saw at your academic meeting. The Master of Science in Biomedical Communications is an interdisciplinary professional graduate program offered at the University of Toronto:

    We have entered an age where creating advanced visualizations of scientific phenomena will allow us to engage with and communicate to a range of audiences in unprecedented ways. These new methods will allow us to tell stories more accurately and compellingly, and will enable us to recruit the power of our visual perception to find patterns and see data more effectively.

    Having said that, a research focus is essential. Not all visualizations are created equal (vis the uneven effectiveness cited in these comments), and we have a comparatively impoverished evidence base for deciding which visualization and communication strategies are most effective. Our faculty are working on these issues in the areas of the visualization of complex intracellular environments, molecular data visualization, risk and statistical visualization, and narrative strategies.

  4. Girish Khera / October 29, 2015 at 03:51

    Thanks for the insight David. As a provider of Scientific Animations ourself, one thing we consistently hear is that the interest in the visuals keeps the attention of the audience.

    BUT what most people don’t realize is that the amount of time taken to explain a concept also comes down drastically. So in a half hour speaking time slot, the amount of material you can cover is quite a bit more.

    Recently Scientific Animations created microsites explaining the Ebolo Virus Mechanism of Action as well as the MOA for Swine flu. In both cases the actual animation was circa 2 min, even though the material covered was substantial. An experiment with Khan academy also resulted in 3D animation videos that were between 3 and 10 times shorter than the corresponding KA video.

    However, as pointed out by the Brandon Univ prof, all of the above, points to the use of 3D Medical Animation as a supporting tool to conference presentations or booth displays, rather than replacing the human interaction of the speaker. Case in point, last year, Dr Cyrus Shroff, a leading Indian retinal surgeon came to us for visuals for an extensive keynote he delivered on Diabetic Retinopathy. While our visuals went on to win an award at a global conference six months later, we believe that it was Dr Shroff’s explanation and expansion of the concepts in the visuals that won the audience over. It is why we had insisted that the visuals have no voice over, and limited labelling, so as not to lose the audience to a passive presentation. I would suggest that University Profs find ways to keep the videos interactive , so as to not appear canned. Some great softwares exist to do this by incorporating external videos into lesson plans.

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