Thursday, August 23, 2007

The New York Times

August 23, 2007

Video Chats Aren’t Just for Tycoons

A few years ago, the phone was the only quick way to get in touch with distant relatives. Their voices were all you got, so it didn’t matter if Grandpa was still in his bathrobe and slippers.

Now that it is easy and cheap to add video to your next call home, Grandpa might need a wardrobe team.

Many video novices are sharing family conversations online using off-the-shelf products and a PC. Once the realm of science fiction and boardroom meetings, videoconferencing at home is now highly sophisticated and, in many cases, free.

Homes with youngsters might not need to look much farther than the game room to start a video conversation. Microsoft’s Xbox 360 offers free videoconferencing with its Xbox Live Vision camera, which costs about $40. The camera requires a gold-level Xbox Live account ($8 a month), and it also requires you to convince the children to take a quick break from the latest shoot-’em-up for a nice video chat with the cousins.

All the videoconferencing outlets have a method to keep calls private, so they are not available for all the world to tap into over the Internet.

The simplest way to start videoconferencing with a PC is to use a service like Skype ( or AOL Instant Messenger ( and a pair of Webcams. The iChat software that comes on all of Apple’s computers uses the AIM network to make voice or video connections to other PCs. Both Skype and AIM allow for fairly smooth video connections among two or more family members.

All the members of the Sigur family in Brussels — Brandon, Sylwia and their 3-year-old toddler, Adrian — use Skype and Microsoft’s messaging service, once known as MSN Messenger but now called Windows Live Messenger, to talk to Brandon’s parents in Albuquerque.

“We talk for at least an hour every week, and they can watch Adrian jump around the living room, play his guitar and show off his Lego creations,” Mr. Sigur said. “We stopped using the phone to call.”

Mr. Sigur said that if his parents are not already online, he uses Skype to call their regular phone and remind them to get on camera. “Just knowing that we can see each other at any time has led us to forget the distance between us,” he said.

In most cases, Webcams can automatically adjust your video feed to compensate for low lighting or audio problems. The services allow for video chats between Macs and PCs, and most require a fairly fast Internet connection. Skype, for example, requires a minimum dial-up connection speed of 33.6 kilobits per second (Kbps) for voice calls, but Vincent Oberle, a Skype engineer, suggests a faster connection at a minimum of 128 Kbps for video, while 256 Kbps is ideal.

These services usually take a “least best” approach to connection speed and video quality, which means that a chat between someone on a fast Internet connection and a person on a slow or congested one will run at the slower speed, reducing the number of frames sent per second. The latest version of Skype for Windows and some other chat services offer an indicator of transmission speed during video chats.

Stephanie Cottrell Bryant, a technology writer and the author of “Videoblogging for Dummies,” suggests getting a laptop with a built-in camera.

“If I were outfitting my mom for video chatting, I would get her a Macbook Pro with an iSight,” she said, referring to the machine’s camera, which peeks out at the top of the screen. “It’s easy to get conferencing working using iChat.”

The biggest issue Ms. Bryant has faced is getting her grandmother to hop on the video bandwagon.

“She still leases a telephone from the phone company,” she said.

When the children get bored with video chatting, you can always crank up the special effects. Many Webcams, including Logitech’s Quickcam line, come with software that can turn the conversation’s participants into dinosaurs and cats using computer animation. Other software can turn your video into a sepia-toned broadcast from the halcyon past or a dreamscape of swirling color.

If you want to take family chats to another level, there is also an entirely new set of tools appearing online that allow broadcasting of live shows with multiple participants. All of these services are free and only require a Webcam, a microphone and perhaps a sense of cinematic timing.

One of the simplest video broadcasting sites is Operator11 (, which allows you to create live shows that are then recorded and available for replay online. It acts as more of an online meeting room with video and audio built in.

The service lets you to create a “studio” where you and up to five friends or family members can participate. The show’s director controls the camera and can turn participants on and off and add prerecorded video clips to the mix. is another live broadcast system that lets you stream live video from a Webcam. Anyone can create an account and broadcast live all day. Parents can use it to transmit video of the children at home to watch in a Web browser at the office, or to broadcast family events to many distant relatives at once. The video streams can be protected with a password.

Ustream’s founder, John Ham, said he had seen a growing number of family videos appearing on the site. “Families are using Ustream to connect when they can’t be together physically.,” he said. “We’ve seen weddings, birthday parties, student graduations, all over Ustream.” is a streaming video site that allows two people to talk at once in separate windows, as on a TV news interview. A text-only chat room alongside the video adds a bit of interactivity, allowing viewers to ask questions and make comments during the broadcast. While its primary target is video bloggers, the site could be useful for recording a discussion of family history or genealogy because it lets an interviewer lead the conversation.

Another site,, which has not yet opened up to the public, will be of interest only to the more ambitious and knowledgeable family news team. It is essentially an online television studio complete with on-screen graphics and a text crawl at the bottom of the screen just like on CNN. Multiple people can string together video clips, creating shows and broadcasts with input from everyone in the group.

Whether these tools and services will replace the call home or the family newsletter is unclear. But some preparation might be in order for an all-video, all-the-time world. Maybe some acting lessons and stage makeup classes — and it probably wouldn’t hurt to put some clothes on before you pick up the phone.