It's not uncommon for businesses to use expensive video conferencing systems to cut back on travel, but video telephones have barely made a dent for home users.
Until recently, it required some pretty expensive equipment and, even then, the quality of the signal was usually very disappointing. However, thanks to a convergence of new technologies and services that is starting to change.
The ingredients to making a high quality video call are now easily obtainable. They are a PC or a Macintosh, a video camera, a broadband connection such as a DSL line or a cable modem and, optionally, a headset with a built-in microphone and earpiece.
PC cameras - often called "web cams" - start at under $50. High quality units, such as the Logitech QuickCam Pro 4000 can be found for under $80. PC headsets start at under $20. You can avoid using a headset by listening through headphones or your PC speakers or talking through a microphone or the microphone that's built into some cameras, but the sound quality will be a lot better if you invest in a headset that plugs into both the microphone and audio-out sockets of your sound card.
Broadband is essential because video takes up a great deal of bandwidth. Though it's possible to make a PC to PC video call using a regular dial-up modem, the video will be very choppy - more like a series of still images - and the audio is likely to break up as well. To get decent video you not only need a fast downlink speed (the rate that data flows from the Internet service provider to your PC) but a reasonably fast upload speed as well because, unlike most Internet activities, you're not just receiving a lot of data, you're sending it as well.
Once you have the basics, the most important piece of the equation is the service you use to connect. Although it's technically possible to create a direct video connection between two PC users, it is far easier to do it via a service such as Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, Apple iChat or, my favorite, SightSpeed, a service dedicated to video calling.
I recently made a series of video calls with my friend and San Jose Mercury News technology journalist, Mike Langberg. Both of us have fairly modern PCs running Windows XP and we both have cable modem lines into our home offices, so our conditions were pretty optimal for the tests. We tested both AIM and SightSpeed.
The big advantage of AIM is that it's free but the video window is very small and cannot be resized. The actual size of the window depends on your monitor and resolution but it was far too small to get a good feel for the conversation.
It's not that I couldn't see or hear Mike - both the video and audio were fairly clear. But in our age of big-screen TVs, the last thing I want to take a giant step backwards by reducing my friend's image to barely larger than a postage stamp.
One nice thing about AIM is that Windows AIM users can converse with Apple iChat users. To make this work, the Windows user will need version 5.5 of AIM and the Mac user version 2.1 of iChat AV.
My best experiences were with SightSpeed, a service from a small Berkeley, California company with the same name. The service, which is free for the first 15 days, costs $4.95 a month or $49.95 for an entire year of unlimited use. Even non-subscribers can use it for free for 15 minutes a day after the trial period. For the regular service, only one person in the conversation needs to be a paying subscriber.
The two big advantages of SightSpeed are its ease of setup and use and the large viewing window on the screen. By default, the viewing window is a square: a few inches in each direction but it can be resized to take up any portion of the screen, including the full screen. SightSpeed is available for both Windows and Macintosh and users of either platform can converse with each other.
Once installed, you can set up a directory of people you wish to converse with. Of course, they too must have the appropriate hardware along with the SightSpeed software. Similar to an instant messaging service's buddy list, the software will display both your online contact and offline contacts. You can place a video call to anyone online simply by double-clicking their name.
Regardless of what service you use, there are some issues to consider. For example, there can be problems if you have a firewall. That software, which is designed to keep hackers at bay, can also interfere with video conferencing. Usually there's a way around it, but it can be a hassle.
There are some user issues to consider. First, you should have adequate lighting. You don't need bright lights - but a lot of light behind you can drown out the video image of your face. So it's not a good idea to be sitting with a light source such as a window behind you, unless you also have a source of light aimed at your face.
You need to be looking almost directly at the camera. One way to accomplish that is to mount the camera on top of your monitor and place the window where you see the other person as high as possible, so it's near the camera. Mounting the camera can be tricky if you have a thin-screen LCD monitor but there is usually a way to accomplish that.
Finally, remember: you're on camera! When engaged in a long conversation, it's easy to forget and wind up slouching in your chair, doing weird things with your hands and other things that you might not want the person on the other end to see.
A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid