November 27, 2000

By Karen Kenworthy


News Flash: Lovely Monica (who used to keep the secluded Power Tools workshop in order), and her new husband Bill, made it back from Scotland. They missed their original flight home. But after spending only one extra night in the Gatwick Hilton, they were able to fly standby all the way home.

Later this week I'll see the new bride for the first time since the wedding. We're going shopping for a few of the many odds and ends she'll need to start a new home. That's part of my wedding present to her and Bill, though while we're out we might find a few Christmas presents too.

Power Toy Two

Speaking of Christmas shopping, if you haven't finished yours yet, have I got a deal for you! For the second year in a row, I'm releasing a new version of the Power Toy. Just in time for all your holiday gift giving. Like last year's model, this new edition has features that appeal to kids of all ages. But now, the Power Toy has some practical uses too.

We'll talk more about the serious stuff in a moment. But first, let's have some fun. The Power Toy takes advantage of Windows' Agent technology, used by Microsoft Office and several other programs. It makes possible those cute (and sometimes annoying) on-screen cartoon characters that gesture, fly, disappear and reappear, and sometimes even talk.

Among the more popular Agent characters are a parrot named Peedy, Robby the Robot, a wizard named Merlin, and a genie named (what else?) Genie. Like all Agents, these animated characters have an extensive repertoire of gestures, actions, and even facial expressions.

Agents can also display text inside "balloons," like those seen above the heads of your favorite characters in comic books. But unlike their paper and ink counterparts, these computer characters can speak out loud, actually talk, with the help of the right computer hardware and software.

The original Power Toy displayed a group of buttons, one for each Agent character installed on your computer. When you clicked an Agent's button, a list of its available actions was displayed.

Click on Peedy's button, for example, and you'll see that Peedy can Greet (take a bow, and wave his hand, err wing), Congratulate (display a prize blue ribbon), look Sad, Surprised, and even Confused. Peedy's nearly 100 other actions include pointing up, down, left and right, and flying from place to place. He can even perform magic tricks and don sunglasses.

The Power Toy does more than display each Agent's list of tricks. Use your mouse to click an entry in the list, and the program will order your selected Agent to perform. Click several actions, one after the other, and you can make an Agent perform quite an elaborate show.

But wait, there's more!

Below the Agent's list of actions you'll find a text box and a button. Here, you tell your Agent what to say. In the box, type any text you like, including punctuation marks and numbers. Then click the "Speak" button below the box. Your text will appear inside a "balloon" above the Agent's head. And if you've installed appropriate hardware, and Text-to-Speech (TTS) software, you'll also hear your text spoken in the Agent's own voice.

Make It Happen

By now you're thinking "This is great! I'll give this software to all my friends. My shopping woes are over!" And of course, you're right. To perform this magic, you'll need a computer running Windows 95 or later. You'll also need a sound board, and either speakers or head phones. No big deal, right? But what about the software?

The answer's a bit lengthy, but easy too. Here's exactly what you need. For best results, download all four components first, then install them in the following order:

  1. Microsoft Agent software (this implements the MS Agent technology).
  2. Lernout & Hauspie's TruVoice Text-to-Speech software (you guessed it -- this allows Agents to talk).
  3. One or more Agent characters. Many are available across the Internet, for free or a modest fee. On my Web site you'll find Microsoft's four free Agent characters: Peedy, Robby, Merlin, and Genie.
  4. Karen's Power Toy.

Where do you find all this neat software? Why, at my Web site, of course! Just visit the Power Toy's home on the Web at Best of all, if you act now, all the software is free!

Actually, like all my Power Tools, the Power Toy is always free. And so is the other software mentioned above! Just download, install and enjoy.

Advanced Features

And now for the serious stuff. Everything I've mentioned so far was included in the original Power Toy. But the new Power Toys has several new surprises.

The biggest change to the Power Toy isn't just for kids. Now, you can create Power Toy scripts, lists of actions that can be repeated on demand. Best of all, other programs, scripts and even DOS batch files, can run these Power Toy scripts.

To enable this new feature, first display the Power Toy's About box. There you'll see a checkbox labeled "Enable Advanced Features." If there isn't already a checkmark there, add one then click the About box's OK button.

When you return to the Power Toy's main window, click one of the Agent buttons to bring an Agent character on-screen. Now, in addition to the usual Power Toy gadgets, you should also see a list of actions performed by the new Agent. This list is a Power Toy Script.

At first, a new script will only include two entries: Start <agent name>, and Move to <location>. But as you ask your Agent to do more, the script will grow. Each action, and spoken word or phrase, is added in turn. If you use your mouse to move the Agent character, that action is recorded too.

At anytime, you can repeat all recorded actions by clicking the Power Toy's new Replay button. You can also edit an existing script. To the right of the list of recorded actions you'll now find three button: Move Up, Move Down, and Delete. To edit an action, just click on its line in the script, then click one of the editing buttons.

Once you're satisfied with a script, you can save it to disk by clicking the program's new Save button. By default, script files are saved with a filename extension of ".toy" but you can choose any extension you want. Later, you can use the Power Toy's new Load button to reload a previously saved script.

But there's another way to get the Power Toy to load and play a script. If the program finds a script name in its command line when it starts, it will automatically load and play that script, then terminate. Best of all, the Power Toy's windows are invisible when the program is run this way. So all you see on- screen is your favorite Agent character, performing whatever actions the script contains!

This great feature allows other programs and scripts to run your favorite Power Toy scripts. For example, if you add this line to a DOS batch file:

Start "C:\Program Files\PTToy\PTToy.exe meeting.toy

The actions contained in the Power Toy script file named meeting.toy will be performed. This command assumes the Power Toy is installed in its default location, and that meeting.toy is in the same directory as PTToy.exe. If not, just change the pathname of PTToy.exe, and insert the appropriate pathname before meeting.toy.

This same trick works when writing macros or scripts for any application that allows you to launch an external program. Just execute PTToy.exe, with the appropriate command line. So let your imagination run wild! Thanks to the new Power Toy, Agents Rule. :)

There's more to say about the new Power Toy. And even more cool features that will be arriving soon. But for now, if you'd like to give the Power Toy 2.0 a try, or give it to a friend, visit my Power Toy Web page at And if you're a programmer, interested in Agent technology, don't forget to download the program's free Visual Basic source code too. I think you'll find, as I have, that programming Agents is fun.

Until next time, look for me and Peedy on the 'net. If you see me, be sure to wave and say "Hi!" And if you see Peedy, well, tell him I'm looking for him.


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