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Gabbing in Real Time With Live Images

March 29, 2001|JIM HEID |

About 30 years ago, my mother took me to Pittsburgh's Buhl Planetarium to try out Bell Telephone's Picturephone, which enabled callers to see each other while chatting. We sat in booths about three feet apart and made small talk for a few minutes. When we left, my mom said she'd never have one of those things in her house.

My mom and I are now on a weekly videoconferencing schedule.

Instead of using the Picturephone, which died a quick death in the marketplace, we're using Macs and inexpensive video cameras along with software that transmits video and audio streams over the Internet. The quality isn't great, but seeing live images of distant family members definitely is.

Several videoconferencing camera-and-software bundles are available for the Mac. I chose Kensington's $69 Videocam VGA ( because it's the same camera that my sister in Pittsburgh bought for her iMac. (Because my mom would never have a computer in her house either, she goes to my sister's house for our video visits.)

Like most low-cost cams, the Videocam VGA connects to the Mac's Universal Serial Bus port. Cams that connect to the faster FireWire port are also available. Two examples are Orange Micro's $119 iBot ( and IRez's forthcoming $199 KritterDigital ( Because FireWire is much faster than USB, FireWire-based cams allow for faster frame rates--more images per second--and thus smoother motion. But this advantage is wasted with Internet-based videoconferencing because the speed of your connection is the weak link in the chain.

Although I chose the Videocam VGA for practical rather than technical reasons, it performs well. The cam is compact--about the size of a cassette tape--and thoughtfully designed. Its base swivels and contains a tripod-mounting hole, which Orange Micro's iBot lacks.

The Videocam VGA's software bundle includes a program that enables you to use the cam to record movies and shoot still images. A button atop the camera lets you snap stills without reaching for the mouse.

For videoconferencing, the cam includes White Pine Software's CUseeMe ( The granddaddy of Mac-based videoconferencing, CUseeMe originated at Cornell University. It's now a commercial product that's also available for Windows.

CUseeMe provides an online directory--create a listing, and other CUseeMe users can contact you for video chats. Because some people are using CUseeMe for things other than virtual visits with faraway relatives, parents will want to use CUseeMe's parental controls, which enable you to password-protect the software to lock out incoming calls, prevent outgoing calls and more.

If you're expecting Picturephone quality from Internet videoconferencing, you'll be disappointed. Even with the fast connections that my sister and I have, video is chunky-looking and motion is jerky. When we tested CUseeMe using a slow modem connection, a new image appeared only every second or two, and audio cut out occasionally. And the delays inherent in shuttling packets across the country prevent casual conversation: Internet videoconferencing is more like ham radio, in which you say "over" after each transmission.

Results like these may lead you to dismiss low-end videoconferencing. But don't underestimate the impact of a live image--even one image every second or two is worth a lot when that image is of a distant loved one.

And if you have a Web site, you can use your video camera to create a Web cam--a frequently updated image of a room or the view from your window. Oculus, a $20 shareware program from Poubelle Software (, snaps an image at regular intervals and then transfers it to your Internet provider. Oculus also creates time-lapse movies and can even snap images when it detects motion. NuSpectra's $149 SiteCam ( provides even more features, including live audio and video feeds and support for as many as six connected cameras.

Internet cameras are particularly fun if you use a PowerBook or iBook equipped with Apple's AirPort wireless networking hardware. By roaming around with my PowerBook, I was able to give my snowbound sister a tour of our garden. She'll be visiting soon, I suspect.


Jim Heid is a contributing editor of Macworld magazine.

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