Video conferencing

§ Tools & software

Recently I’ve been playing around with the webcam & audio conversation features in Microsoft’s latest instant messenger client. I have to say I was impressed (maybe all too easily).

Over 600 Kbs broadband connections, the audio was flawless; better than telephone. It was certainly an improvement over any voice-over-IP that I’ve used before (to be fair I’ve only used VoIP long distance). And all you need is that ?8 microphone you stuck in a drawer last time you bought a ‘multi-media PC’. The really clever bit is the audio feedback filtering. Both parties can talk and be heard at the same time (unlike telephone squawk boxes for example) and yet you never hear yourself. My fellow converser also tried playing music loudly through his computer speakers and I could hear him talking but not the music; he assures me it was not down to the sensitivity of his mic.

The webcam conversation was not quite so impressive. Picture quality was acceptable but the frame rate was little better than 1 fps. A webcam conversation between two PCs at work was much smoother, so I assume the slow frame rate was down to bandwidth limitations. Incidentally, Argos have a special offer on two USB webcams for ?25 (in-store only).

Of course the real buzz is that you can run audio and webcam conversations at the same time – the video phone finally comes to fruition. And, after an initial spend of ?20 on a mic and a webcam, it’s free.

We also tried out Eyeball, hoping to get an improvement in video quality but unfortunately it was no better. The audio had no feedback filtering either, so unless the other party used headphones, there was an irritating echo. Before I get bombarded with email, I suspect that iChat AV on a Mac is superior to Microsoft IM on a PC – except iChat AV is not free.

And yes, you can now view my webcam on this site, but I’m not convinced of its value (or my sanity) so catch it while you can. Alternatively there’s some very interesting paint drying over there.