The online home for Greg Leedberg, since 1995.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Why Aren't You Videoconferencing?

Science fiction always portrays futuristic communication as being video-based. In the future, no one will have to talk to someone and only hear them -- we'll be able to see them, too! There seems to be a common belief that this is the way forward, and will enable humans to better stay in touch. I can't wait for this type of technology to come to fruition.

Except, it is already here.

Videoconferencing is no longer a thing of movies and TV shows. Videoconferencing is here, reasonably priced, and available for consumers. But, it seems like there is still this perception that it's "on the verge" of becoming available.

For several years now, I have used videoconferencing. While at grad school, I used it to stay in touch with my family. Nowadays, I use it to stay in touch with my girlfriend. I have to agree that when distance keeps people apart, video makes a huge difference when communicating, compared to voice-only conversations. It's a great thing to be able to see the person that you miss.

So, how much of a premium do I pay for this futuristic ommunication? Actually, other than hardware, I don't pay anything. How expensive was the hardware? Not counting the requisite PC, I paid less than $100 (much less, actually).

I really, really don't get why videoconferencing isn't a huge hit right now.

So, what do I use to do videoconferencing? Currently, my service of choice is SightSpeed. SightSpeed provides free one-to-one videoconferencing. The video is slightly on the blurry side, but the audio is crystal clear and the synchronization between audio and video is perfect, the video is incredibly smooth, there's no perceptible delay, and the interface is very intuitive. For a small annual fee, you can get multi-party conferencing and a video-mail inbox. But the free service certainly suffices for most people. I can't say enough good things about this service.

There are other good video services as well. For quite a while, I used a service called CQ-Phone. I also have used Eyeball Chat and MSN Messenger. These were all pretty decent as well, but had notciable delay and worse lip audio-video synchronization. You'd be surprised how valuable it is for the conversation to feel "real-time", even at the expense of some video clarity.

For hardware, I use a Creative WebCam NX Pro, but pretty much anything from Logitech or Creative is pretty good these days. They range in price, from $20 to over $100, so you can pay as much or as little as you want. But, even the cheaper ones are pretty darn good. It's also good to have a headset to prevent echo. You can get a mono headset (which is all you need for a conversation) for about $10.

Wow, this futuristic technology is really straining my bank account.

So, the software technology is here, and vastly improved over the first attempts made in the early 90's. The hardware is here, and is pretty cheap, with good quality, and is easy to set up. So, why aren't people using videoconferencing? There are a few main reasons I can see.

The first is the inherent catch-22 of videoconferencing. A person may be inclined to try videoconferencing, but if they don't know anyone with a webcam, they're not going to go out and buy the necessary equipment. And as long they do that, other people will avoid webcams for the same reason. What we need is for a webcam to magically appear at everyone's home one day, so now everyone will have a webcam, and have someone to talk to. A few years ago, computer manufacturers were starting to rectify this by including webcams with computers. Unfortunately, they stopped this before everyone had a webcam. I know that this is how I personally came into the world of videoconferencing. My parents' computer came with a webcam. So, when I went to grad school, I bought one for me so I could stay in touch with them. When my girlfriend and I were going to be apart for awhile, she got one since I already had one. Had my parents' not had a webcam come with their computer, I may never have gotten one myself -- who would I have talked to?

Another reason is that the best way right now to videoconference is with a computer, but I think a large segment of population is "afraid" to use their computer for communication. As a society, we are emotionally attached to our phones as our primary communication devices, and it would be quite a big shift for us to all start using computers for this. For a brief while, I used Skype, on my computer, as my primary means of making phone calls. Even for me, a rather technologically-inclined person, it felt odd to be using a computer to call for pizza and to wish my grandmother a happy birthday. Somehow, we have to overcome this mental hurdle.

The biggest reason, I think, is just that people aren't aware that videoconferencing is here, it's usable, and it's very affordable. Somehow, the mass populace has to made aware that this is now an option. This is, of course, one reason I decided to post a blog entry on this subject. But somehow, there really needs to be more attention brought to this subject. My previous idea of a webcam magically appearing at everyone's home would certainly accomplish this as well.

I am a big fan of videoconferencing. I think that it really is the future of communication, and it enables us, as a society, to communicate and interact over long distances in ways we have never been able to before. Videoconferencing is here, despite the fact that most people don't seem to be aware of it. We just need to, somehow, get webcams into peoples' hands, make them aware of what's out there, and convince them that it's okay to use something other than a phone to communicate.

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