Every so often a consumer electronics company claims to have re-invented the videophone. The stores dutifully stock them for a few months then they quietly disappear or are sold off, usually at knockdown prices. Occasionally the people who make and sell these things figure out the futility of being the only person with a videophone and try to sell them in pairs, but as concepts go the home videophone has been a bit of a flop

There is a way to make sense of it; all you need is a reasonably up to date PC with an Internet connection and a fairly modest outlay of just £30. It also helps if you have a few like-minded friends or relatives with Internet PCs and it’s worth pointing out that since this is an Internet facility they can be anywhere in the world. 

In fact two–way video over the Internet is nothing new but in the past you needed to be a bit of an enthusiast with a great deal of patience and deep pockets. Two things have happened recently that now make the idea worth investigating, even if you’re relatively new to PCs and the Internet. The first is the appearance of cheap ‘web cams’; several models now sell for less than £30 (inclusive of VAT, see Contacts). The other is the release of Microsoft NetMeeting 3.01, a free and simple to use program that takes the sting out of Internet videotelephony.

You may be wondering how it all works. As you know you can send reasonably high quality still pictures over the Internet; video on the Internet works in a similar way except that instead of a single still picture you send (and receive) a succession of small relatively low-resolution still images. These are updated a few times each second, which gives a passable impression of movement. The amount of data is reduced or compressed by only sending parts of the picture that change from one frame to then next. Sound is processed in a similar way it is converted into digital data, compressed and sent in short bursts or ‘packets’ along with the picture information.

There is a penalty to be paid; depending on the time of day and your PC’s connection speed there can be brief pauses in the connection, from a fraction of a second to a second or more. The resultant images are also quite small and movement is jerky but that is something you get used to quite quickly and is more than offset by the novelty of seeing and talking to someone who may be thousands of miles away.

One point to bear in mind is that unlike a normal phone call you can’t simply dial up the other person, instead you both have to be online or logged on to a special Internet site called an ILS that plays host to videophone or video conferencing calls. There are lots of them and they are usually free to use. When you log onto the ILS you will see a list of all of the other people using the site, including – hopefully – the person you are trying to reach, the usual procedure is to double-click on their name, their PC ‘rings’ and a messages flashes up on the screen asking them if they want to accept the call. Obviously this requires prior arrangement, either you both log on at a pre-set time or you email the other person to let them know when you will be online.

You can also start a conversation with any of the other people logged onto the site. It works a bit like an Internet ‘chatroom’ except that you can elect to be seen and heard, as well as exchange real-time text messages. There are scores of ILS sites including many special interest groups  -- teachers, nurses, lawyers, architects and so on -- not to mention quite a few ‘adult’ groups, but it’s usually fairly clear from the name or address of the server what it’s about. 

Before you rush out and buy a web cam you need to check a few things. Most budget models have a USB connection, which is very convenient and easy to use but it has only been a standard fitment on PCs and laptops within the past three or four. Other types of web cam that use a plug-in card or a parallel port connection are available but they tend to be a bit dearer. If you have a camcorder you could use that, in conjunction with a video capture card or a TV tuner card, most of which have video inputs.

Your PC must have a soundcard and speakers, and a microphone. If you haven’t used a mike with your PC before it’s a good idea to check that it’s working properly. Open the Windows Sound Recorder facility (Start > Programs > Accessories > Entertainment) and make a short test recording. If you can’t get it to work make sure the input hasn’t been muted or the level set too low (Audio Properties on Sound Recorder’s Edit menu, click on the Recording icon).

Now you can get your web cam. They’re generally quite easy to install but please read the instructions. Most models come with a version of NetMeeting on the installation CD-ROM. It’s bound to be a clunky early version but install it anyway, however don’t use it or try to configure it at this stage; we’ll save that for next week’s Boot Camp. Test the camera, familiarise yourself with the controls and settings. Most models come with utility and capture software -- for video emails -- and templates that can be used with capture still images to make greetings cards, so your new camera should have plenty of other uses. The last job this week is to obtain the latest version of NetMeeting (see contacts) from the Microsoft web site, it’s a fairly small file (1.5Mb) and should only take a few minutes to download.

Next week – Setting up your video phone



Budget Web Cams




Internet Locator Server – an Internet site that or server that allows users logged onto that site to communicate with one another, either individually or in groups


Data travelling around the Internet is chopped up by the server computers and sent in brief bursts or packets, to be reassembled by the software on the end-users PC


Universal Serial Bus -- industry standard connection system for peripherals that does away with confusing technicalities and allows 'hot swaps', allowing connection and disconnection with the PC switched on.



How many times has something gone wrong with your PC and you or someone else solves the problem? Then it happens again, but you can’t remember what you did. Why not create your own Help file? It’s easy, just open a new document in Windows WordPad or your chosen word processor and call it something like myhelp.txt. It’s a good idea to save it as a plain text file because you will still be able to read it easily in DOS, if your PC won’t boot to Windows.  (Type Edit at the C: prompt, and use the Alt, Tab and arrow keys to navigate to the file). From now on every time you solve a problem, learn a new trick or come across a handy hint jot it down in myhelp.txt. One day it could come in very useful! 

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