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Forget travel—try video conferencing
for the masses!

AnchorDesk, 12/19/01
By DAVID COURSEY, Executive Editor

Since last week, I've already had two business trips cancelled by the people I was going to see, and if any other airplane rides were on my agenda, I would cancel them myself. I have now, as a reporter and volunteer, been somehow involved in enough plane crashes that it would be fine with me if I never went to an airport again. So if I have to fly, I will—statistically air travel is quite safe—but if I can avoid it, I will do that, too.

LATELY, MANY PEOPLE much less paranoid than I seem to have come to the same conclusion, at least for the time being. Yet business must go on, and sometimes believing requires seeing.

Sergio Non's story on CNET's talks about the rising fortunes of companies that build high-dollar conferencing systems. I understand that for $100,000, you can get a system that links two conference rooms and everyone in them, which can pay for itself fairly quickly.

But for 1/1000th the price, you can add video to your PC and conference to your heart's content. And, yes, you can bring a few people into your office and they can join the fun, too.

I AM NOT TRYING to suggest that a PC cam rivals a pricey Polycom system, but I know a lot more people who can afford a Logitech camera at $100 than a gizmo that costs more than many people's houses.

One caveat: I have had lots of problems with firewalls, which don't seem to understand video isn't a hacker attack. I have also had problems with network admins who didn't appreciate why the firewall should be opened to allow video.

I do not have a fixed set of rules for what works and what doesn't, but for $100 you can easily plug in a cam and find out. Keep all the packaging, and you can probably return the cam if it doesn't work. At home, I plug the PC into the Internet directly—sans firewall—when running live video.

THE EASIEST METHOD of arranging a video conference is to use a free application like Microsoft NetMeeting or Yahoo Messenger. If you have a Microsoft or Yahoo instant messaging account, these two programs make getting connected a breeze.

Windows XP has significantly improved video support over Win9x and Me, but since hardly anyone has it running right now, I won't explain it in detail. But if you find video useful, XP will make it easier to convince your friends to get their own cams.

Remember that you need cameras at both ends for a two-way chat. This means the other side of the connection also needs to be firewall-happy and using the same software you are.

AS FOR THE CAMERA itself, I really like the Logitech Pro 3000, which sells for about $99 and includes a built-in microphone. Other cams are on the market, of course, but this is the one I've paid my own money for. A higher-end alternative is to plug your home video camera into your PC, a feat that is beyond the technical level of this discussion but does produce great images.

The other thing you need to consider is the speed of your video connection. A 56Kbps dial-up is probably fine for "fun" video, like letting the grandparents see the kids, but this solution probably doesn't work for business applications.

A DSL or other high-speed connection works much better, although the people with the $100,000 systems will get much better video than your "budget" system, regardless of connection speed.

THAT DESCRIBES how to conduct a one-to-one conference. If you want to do a one-to-many or many-to-many video, you should look into services like WebEx or the less-expensive (and top-rated in a recent CNET review) Astound Conference Center. Both offer corporate-grade video and Web conferencing services on a pay-as-you-go basis.

I won't go so far as to say "long distance is the next best thing to being there," since being physically present has many benefits that even the best teleconferencing system doesn't capture.

But if you want to save money, see your contacts more often and in less formal circumstances, or simply find yourself unable (or unwilling) to travel, your computer, a video camera, and an Internet connection provide a reasonable alternative.

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