VoIP technology has provided companies with a way to conduct conference calls at a much lower cost -- but VoIP conference calls still have many of the same drawbacks as those made using the PSTN: Multi-party phone conversations are prone to confusion with more than one person speaking at once and the inability to tell who's saying what.
However, as with PSTN calls, we can solve some of these problems by adding video. With high-bandwidth Internet connections becoming commonplace even for home users, VoIP and video make a logical combination for conducting remote meetings that more accurately emulate the face-to-face variety. Here's a look at some options for combining VoIP and video.
Instant messaging, Skype, and Web services
IM programs such as Windows Live Messenger allow you to make video phone calls with just a couple mouse clicks once you've set up your Webcam and microphone to work with Messenger. In the Actions menu, just select Video and then select Start A Video Call. Click the contact you want to call, and that's it. With Messenger, video calls are one-to-one, but you can conduct multiple separate video calls at the same time.
Yahoo Messenger and other IM programs also support "video chat." Check the Web site for the IM client you use.
Better known as a VoIP service than for its IM functionality, Skype's latest versions also support free video calling between two computers that have Skype installed and have the appropriate hardware (i.e., Webcams, microphones, and sound cards). You can switch the video feature on or off during a call. Again, video calls are limited to two parties, so you can't really have a video conference with these programs, but they work fine for one-to-one remote meetings -- and they're free.
Web services such as VMukti provide multi-point audio and video conferencing built on peer-to-peer architecture. VMukti Meeting Place can bridge multiple chat applications and telephony streams into one big online meeting.
Open source software
For Linux/UNIX users, there are open source VoIP videoconferencing solutions such as Ekiga (formerly known as GnomeMeeting). It supports both SIP and H.323, and it works with Asterisk. You can get a free SIP address at the Ekiga.net Web site; you need to subscribe, but there's no cost.
VoIP video phones
For companies that want to invest a bit more money in VoIP video, there are a number of SIP-based and H.323-based video phones available. These are desktop handsets that include an LCD screen for video. Here are a few examples:
- Grandstream GXV3000 has a 5.6-inch flip-up TFTP screen and built-in VGA camera.
- InnoMedia IP videophones features several models at various price points, some with advanced features such as an integrated Wi-Fi client and G3 mobile system compatibility.
- D-Link DVC-2000 Broadband desktop VideoPhone sports an auto IP mapping feature to make it easy to initiate a videoconference call over the Internet.
Dedicated video phones are stand-alone devices that don't have to connect to a computer; they plug directly into the network. Many support advanced display options such as picture-in-picture and have speaker phones for hands-free conferencing.
High-end VoIP videoconferencing solutions
Companies that have plenty of cash to sink into videoconferencing solutions can find plenty of places to spend it. IT industry market leaders such as Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft all offer conferencing solutions that range in price from Microsoft's just-unveiled $3,000 RoundTable to HP's $249,000 Halo and Cisco's $300,000 TelePresence. Other companies such as Polycom and Teliris offer lower (but still high) priced high-definition videoconferencing systems.
By design, Halo and TelePresence provide a super-realistic, "next-best-thing-to-being-there" experience with full-size, life-like views of other conference participants. For that level of realism, you pay big bucks. It's something only large corporations can afford. For the rest of us, however, there are exciting new options that won't break the bank.
A first look at Microsoft's new RoundTable system reveals an interesting product. It uses a panoramic camera setup (actually consisting of five cameras that cover a 360-degree circle, along with six microphones). In addition to its relatively low price, perhaps the most appealing feature is its "no-brainer" ease of use. The pair of devices (Active Speaker and the panoramic camera) plug into the USB port of a host computer that has Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2007 client software installed. (Alternatively, you can use an Office Communications Server 2007 instead of the hosted Live Meeting.)
So far, it doesn't sound that impressive, but then you discover that the device can actually detect who's speaking -- that's the function of the Active Speaker component -- and focus on that person. Users get two views: The panoramic view of the entire conference room and the active speaker. When a different person speaks, the Active Speaker view changes almost instantly -- pretty cool! It also adjusts for varying light levels within the room.
In addition to working with Live Meeting and OCS, some of RoundTable's functions will even work with third-party VoIP video software such as Skype, according to reports. You can see a short video demonstration of RoundTable on Tom Keating's blog site.
While the high-end systems come with big price tags, with cost of travel rising steadily, a conferencing system that replaces those expensive trips can easily pay for itself within a short time.
Whether you use a $25 Webcam and a free IM client or open source software, or invest in a high-dollar, high-definition "studio" type system, adding video to VoIP can greatly expand the functionality of both one-to-one IP calls and multi-point conferences. Video plus VoIP opens up telephony communications to persons who may have hearing problems and need visual cues to follow a conversation, and it brings conference call participants into meetings in situations where they may have easily lost interest with audio only.
For meeting organizers and presenters, it makes it easy to illustrate your points with slideshow presentations or use live demonstrations to pep up your talk and lend more clarity to what you're saying. Video and VoIP is the next logical step for business (and eventually, home) communications.
Deb Shinder is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. She currently specializes in security issues and Microsoft products, and she has received Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional (MVP) status in Windows Server Security.
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Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.