When the need arises to discuss a problem with a coworker, many employees prefer to meet in person rather than talk on the telephone or send an email message. However, as more businesses let employees telecommute, these in-person meetings become less frequent. Whether it's with a coworker across campus, a group in a conference room across town, or a friend in Milwaukee, making a visual connection adds another dimension to the conversation. Because your coworkers and friends already have computers and Internet connections, adding that visual element through Internet videoconferencing doesn't need to cost much; the software is available free or at a very low cost, and a pair of PC cameras can cost as little as $80. Videoconferencing over the Internet can be an important tool for home-office use and can lower your phone bill.
Many vendors—including Aiptek, D-Link Systems, IBM, Logitech, Creative Technology, and Philips—offer PC cameras. You can use almost any PC with a USB port, a bidirectional sound card, and speakers for videoconferencing. (PC camera processor requirements usually hover around a 266MHz Pentium processor.) PC cameras usually come with drivers for Windows 2000, Windows Me, and Windows 98. At the time of writing, most vendors had introduced drivers for Windows XP, and the rest should have them by the time you read this. (For more information about videoconferencing with XP, see the sidebar "Should You Use Windows XP?")
I was unable to find any PC cameras that supported Windows NT 4.0 or Win95, but that wasn't surprising because neither OS fully supports USB. However, Winnov offers a videoconferencing kit called Videum Conference Pro (PCI) that supports XP, Win2K, Windows Me, NT, Win98, and Win95. The kit includes a camera with a built-in microphone and an audio/video (A/V) capture board with dedicated sound circuitry. At $359, Videum Conference Pro (PCI) is more expensive than USB-based PC cameras. However, because of the product's dedicated sound circuitry and its freedom from USB port bandwidth limitations, the vendor claims that the kit offers better video quality and better A/V synchronization than solutions that employ USB-compatible PC cameras and general-purpose PC audio subsystems. (For more information about videoconferencing, see "Related Reading.")
Selecting a Camera
Cameras come bundled with a variety of creative applications for video email, snapshots, movie editing, and customized calendars (among other things), but all the cameras include Microsoft NetMeeting—Microsoft's free conferencing product, which you can also download from Microsoft's Web site. I found Web cameras selling for $30 to $140 each. At the lower end of the price continuum, models such as D-Link's DSB-C100 USB Digital Video Camera, IBM's PC Camera, and Philips' ToUcam provide videoconferencing basics: a CMOS image sensor and a small collection of software.
In the $70 to $80 range, you'll find models such as Logitech's QuickCam Web camera, which features a built-in microphone. You'll also find models such as Aiptek's PenCam 2 camera and Logitech's ClickSmart 310 camera, which can serve as videoconferencing cameras as well as very basic digital cameras for snapshot photography when untethered from your PC. Most models in this price range provide multielement glass lenses that can provide crisper images than the simpler lenses found in the lowest-priced PC cameras. Once you reach the $100 price point, you'll find PC cameras such as IBM's Net Camera Pro camera that use charge-coupled device (CCD) image sensors rather than the cheaper CMOS variety. CCD sensors generally provide better image quality than their CMOS cousins. Although the Net Camera Pro camera lacks a microphone, it does provide a composite video input jack that lets you capture video from a VCR.
At the upper end of the price range, you'll find more sophisticated PC camera—digital camera combinations. For example, Logitech's ClickSmart 510 camera and Creative Technology's PC-CAM 300 camera use CCD image sensors, provide built-in microphones, and offer greater resolution and storage capacity for snapshot photographers.
Making the Connection
The quality of your videoconferencing experience depends heavily on the speed of the Internet connection at either end of your call. With high-speed connections on both ends, such as a LAN, cable modem, satellite, or ADSL service, video quality and voice synchronization are very good. Video frame rates can be as high as 10 frames per second (fps) to 12fps at low resolutions (e.g., 176 x 144 pixels) or 6fps to 10fps at 352 x 288 pixels. Note that although you might want a larger, more detailed image, increasing the resolution to 640 x 480 pixels requires four times as much data to be compressed and sent across the communications link. Such resolution is impractical with inexpensive hardware, even with a fast Internet connection.
If one or both ends of the connection use a V.90 56Kbps modem, the communications link becomes a real bottleneck, and even the 352 x 288 pixel resolution is unusable. However, videoconferencing at 176 x 144 pixel resolution is still possible, albeit with low frame rates (2fps to 4fps) and poorer A/V synchronization. In contrast, television uses a 30fps rate, and movies are shot at 24fps. Choppy video and slightly delayed audio might be acceptable for family use, but I strongly suggest upgrading to a high-speed Internet connection if you use videoconferencing for business purposes.
If high-speed Internet access isn't available in your area, see whether the Internet providers serving both ends of the connection offer V.92 modem access. V.92 is a new modem standard that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recently ratified. Under this new standard, maximum download speeds are still limited to about 53Kbps (42Kbps to 52Kbps is typical), but users can adjust upload speeds to a maximum of 48Kbps. The existing V.90 modem standard limits upload speeds to 33.6Kbps (26.4Kbps to 28.8Kbps is most common). V.92 technology won't provide the same level of performance as ADSL or cable, but it might improve the videoconferencing experience significantly. In addition, V.92 modems are only slightly more expensive than V.90 modems. Note, however, that if your current 56Kbps modem is downloading at 33.6Kbps or slower as a result of your phone line's configuration, a V.92 modem won't provide any benefit.
One way to make the most of available bandwidth is for both parties to use inexpensive headphones rather than the PC's speakers to listen. Headphones eliminate the retransmission of received audio, which improves frame rates and audio synchronization.
Another tip is to keep the backgrounds simple. Backgrounds with fine detail or movement are more difficult for video compression algorithms to handle.
Connecting with NetMeeting
As I mentioned earlier, all the cameras come with NetMeeting, which is suitable for both business and family use. NetMeeting supplements its videoconferencing function with whiteboard, file transfer, text-chat, and application-sharing capabilities. NetMeeting's whiteboard and application-sharing capabilities let you collaborate with several business associates at one time, but its videoconferencing capability is limited to point-to-point communications. In other words, you can videoconference with only one person at a time.
Using NetMeeting's application-sharing feature, I was able to share a Microsoft Word document and a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet with a remote user during a videoconference. I just had to click the Share Program button on the Taskbar below NetMeeting's video window, then select which document to share when the Sharing dialog box appeared. Only the documents I chose to share were visible to the other party, and we were still able to see each another as we discussed the document.
You can configure NetMeeting to automatically log on to an Internet Locator Server (ILS), a directory server on the Internet on which you can find other NetMeeting users who are similarly logged on and who can find you. To configure NetMeeting to log on to an ILS when the program loads, choose Tools, Options. On the General tab, select the Log on to a directory server when NetMeeting starts check box, as Figure 1 shows. ILSs are available worldwide, and you can find their addresses on the NetMeeting Zone Web site (http://www.netmeet.net/bestservers.asp).
When you and your coworker have agreed on which ILS to use, you can find his or her name in the directory listing and select it (providing the person is logged on to that ILS), or you can simply enter his or her email address on NetMeeting's address bar. If you both have Microsoft .NET Messenger Service accounts, you can initiate a videoconference from the MSN Messenger client. If your children use NetMeeting, I recommend either of the latter two approaches because many ILS directories contain listings that are of an adult nature. Unfortunately, NetMeeting provides no parental control feature.
NetMeeting also lets you log on to an ILS without your name appearing in the directory listing. Similar to having an unlisted phone number, this feature eliminates unsolicited calls; however, your friends, family, and clients can still contact you by selecting your name from NetMeeting's address book or through its address bar. Figure 2 shows a NetMeeting videoconference in progress.
First Virtual Communications offers two videoconferencing products that provide interesting features. The first product is a free browser plugin called CUseeMe Web that lets you videoconference on the CUseeMeworld.com Web site. The site provides chat rooms in which you can meet with up to 12 people, or you can create a chat room in which you and your coworkers can meet. However, you'll be able to videoconference only on the CUseeMeworld.com Web site or other Web-based conferencing sites that support the CUseeMe Web browser plugin. For a listing of CUseeMe conferencing servers and CUseeMe Web—compatible sites, go to http://www.rocketcharged.com/cuseeme/reflectors.htm#types.
After downloading the plugin, I entered one of the CUseeMeworld.com chat rooms and was able to see and converse with 4, 8, or 12 participants at one time, as Figure 3 shows. When all the participants used high-speed connections, I found the plugin useful. However, with 56Kbps modems, low frame rates and latency made for a poor videoconferencing experience if participants used audio rather than text chat to converse.
The site's capacity might also be a problem. On several attempts to enter an existing chat room or create one of my own, I received messages that the server was full and I would have to try later. If you create your own chat room on the site, uninvited guests can request permission to enter, at which point you can grant or deny them access. Such requests can be a bother if they occur frequently during your conference. Because the plugin and access to the Web site are free, families that are spread over several geographic locations should give it a try; however, CUseeMe Web probably isn't the best solution for business use.
For $40, First Virtual Communications also offers CUseeMe 5.0. This product lets you conduct private, one-to-one videoconferences as you can with NetMeeting. CUseeMe also lets you use the CUseeMeworld.com site or other Web-based conferencing sites that support CUseeMe Web, as well as other CUseeMe conference servers around the world. Unlike CUseeMe Web, however, your one-on-one videoconferences don't take place in a chat room, so uninvited guests won't be attempting to join in. As with NetMeeting, CUseeMe 5.0 users can use .NET Messenger Service to see whether friends or coworkers are online and invite them to participate in a videoconference.
Although CUseeMe 5.0 lacks NetMeeting's ability to share applications or transfer files to others in your conference, it does provide a parental control feature. With this capability, parents can determine which individuals or conference servers their children can access, as Figure 4 shows. If you decide to purchase CUseeMe 5.0, first check its list of supported cameras to ensure that you won't run into problems later.
NetMeeting users can videoconference with CUseeMe 5.0 users and vice versa because both products support the ITU H.323 and H.324 videoconferencing standards. However, NetMeeting users can't use CUseeMe servers or vice versa. Using NetMeeting, I was able to videoconference with a CUseeMe 5.0 user by entering the other party's IP address into CUseeMe 5.0's Manual Dial address field.
Overall, I found NetMeeting's videoconferencing experience to be a bit better than what CUseeMe 5.0 offered, but home users might prefer CUseeMe because of its parental control feature and ability to videoconference with several people at once in Web-based videoconferencing chat rooms. Business users will probably opt for NetMeeting because it offers a plethora of collaboration features.
The Route Less Traveled
If you really need multipoint videoconferencing but Web-based videoconferencing chat rooms don't offer the privacy you require, one option is to purchase a Multipoint Control Unit (MCU)—a device that bridges multiple video and audio inputs, letting three or more parties take part in a videoconference. However, MCUs can cost thousands of dollars, an amount that might be prohibitive for home-office users.
One alternative is Panasonic's new KX-HCM10 network camera, which takes the place of a PC camera. The KX-HCM10 camera sits on top of your monitor, but it plugs into your home network's router rather than your computer's USB port. You can set the camera, which has a built-in Web server and home page, to obtain an IP address from a DHCP-enabled router, or you can set the address manually if you're plugging it into a hub. When all conference participants have installed their cameras, they can use a Web browser to see images of all participants.
Unfortunately, because the KX-HCM10 provides no audio functionality, you'll have to set up a telephone conference call to handle the audio portion of the meeting. Also, if your router's IP address changes frequently, you might want to use Panasonic's optional dynamic domain-naming service so that remote parties can enter a simple address such as http://www.mark.myeyecam.com into their browser. This service costs $40 per year.
Panasonic recommends a broadband Internet connection for the KX-HCM10 camera, and I agree. If each of four remote meeting participants has 384Kbps download capability and 128Kbps upload capability, the camera's JPEG compression technology could provide all participants with 160 x 120 pixel images of each party at about 6fps. With more than four remote participants, you would require faster upload and download speeds to maintain the same frame rate. At a list price of $499, the KX-HCM10 camera is more expensive than a PC camera and provides no document-sharing capabilities. However, the camera might be a cost-effective alternative to an MCU if you need to have multipoint videoconferences with the same parties on a regular basis.