Like many tech-savvy> folks these days, Mike Whitmore is no stranger to video chat, logging face time with friends and clients alike via webcam and computer screen. So when his wife recently gave birth to their first daughter, the Redmond, Wash., consultant and proud papa wasted no time in calling a friend across town to show off baby Hope, who happily obliged, cooing, flapping her arms and staring dreamily into the camera. Only this pint-size performance didn t play out on a laptop or desktop monitor; Whitmore and his friend were staring into their hands, testing the new video-chat feature of their cell phones. It was a Star Trek type of experience, he says.
Beam me up, operator. After years of being a sci-fi fantasy, video calling has become a way of life for millions of Americans both on their home computers and now, increasingly, while on the move with a mobile phone. According to a recent survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, one in five Internet users has tried video chat, a technology that barely existed just five years ago. And because the basic computer-based video calling is free, analysts forecast even steeper growth not to mention ongoing innovation. The latest developments include video voice-mail messages, the ability to snap still-life photos during a video conversation and calls that can blow up from a 3.5-inch iPod to a 60-inch flat-screen TV. Ready for your close-up, Uncle Ted?
Skype, of course, remains the dominant force in this industry, where the mobile piece of the business alone now totals nearly $100 million. Yet Google, Apple, Yahoo and a host of smaller competitors are nudging in while the technology itself is still ironing out kinks. More than a quarter of video talkers have complained that their live feed has frozen during a conversation, and at least a third have experienced some sort of delay. And though it s typically free to make a call, costs can quickly add up for the different devices that may be needed from the latest webcams and cell phones to $7,000 TVs. A look at the issues consumers face as they connect
via video calls.
Through the Computer
Skype and its competitors keep rolling out features. But does anyone really want to be seen in high-def? Who s doing what:
Cost: Video chat is free. Voice calls run from a few cents to more than $2 a minute.
Comment: The only service that lets up to five buddies chat together via video and view each other in high-def (special webcam required). But a recent blind test found that two-thirds of callers liked the video quality of ooVoo a smaller competitor that paid for the study more than Skype. Skype says its own research shows customers are satisfied.
Requires: An account with either AOL Instant Messenger (free) or Apple s MobileMe ($99 a year), plus software
Cost: Makes free video calls to computers. Text messages may incur charges.
Comment: Apple s entry into the field doesn t let users make calls in high-def yet. But four people can chat together on a single call and share photos on the computer screen at the same time.
GOOGLE VOICE & VIDEO CHAT
Requires: A Gmail account
Cost: Video chatting is free, but voice calls cost between 2 cents and $1 a minute.
Comment: Manic multitaskers, take note: Google s video-chat function lets you e-mail and instant-message during your chat session. But a spokesperson says video calls work with only one person at a time and that the service isn t yet available in high-def.
For Rose Caparros, who lives 1,300 miles from her grandkids, arranging virtual visits is the only way to squeeze in face time between reunions. The 72-year-old from Margate, Fla., recently downloaded video-chat software onto her computer but says the live feed of her face appeared fuzzy on the screen and adjusting the webcam only gave her loved ones a close-up of her nostrils. After a second camera proved just as blurry, Caparros finally purchased and settled on a third. What s the point of using this if you re not going to see anything? she says.
These days, webcams designed for video calling run as little as a few dollars and come built into many laptops. Yet nearly 20 percent of gabbers have griped about poor picture quality during a video conversation, according to a recent survey. Newer high-definition cameras ($50 to $140) provide sharper images, says Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with research firm Yankee Group. But both callers need a high-definition camera, plus a minimum Web connection speed of 384 kilobits per second (about the typical speed for cable broadband), to produce clear calls.
Over Cell Phones
Indeed, Internet signal strength can make or break calls on mobiles as well. After Whitmore finished flaunting his newborn, for instance, his friend tried sharing the view outside her Bellevue, Wash., apartment. But as she walked further out onto her deck, the call dropped three separate times.
Turns out, some video-chat features run exclusively on Wi-Fi which saves callers from having to use calling-plan minutes but can keep them stuck near an Internet hot spot. Of course, whenever there s a problem in smartphone land, an app often tries swooping in to the rescue. One contender: Fring, which provides free video chatting over Wi-Fi but also 3G and faster 4G phone networks. (Unless your data plan is unlimited, stick to Wi-Fi hot spots to avoid carrier overage fees.) Other apps come preloaded on certain handsets: Qik, for one, started offering free video calling earlier this year, though the service is limited to Samsung s Epic and HTC s Evo models ($200). And Apple s much publicized FaceTime feature runs only on you guessed it the latest iPhone or iPod touch.
Crowding around a little screen on either a computer or cell phone isn t always easy during group powwows. That s why earlier this year some home-owners started splashing video calls across 40 to 65 inches of real estate, after Skype s service rolled out on a small handful of Web-enabled TVs. Callers can dial other Skype customers through their TV s remote, then talk through a supersized webcam that lets people sit as far as 12 feet away. While chatting is free, and connects to callers on the other line via not only TV but also computer, the technology is only built into newer Samsung and Panasonic sets that run $1,200 to $7,000. And that special webcam will cost at least $150, since regular models can t plug into a television.
Then again, some people have modified their existing sets at home in order to talk through the tube. Carl Gould of Riverdale, N.J., has hooked up a computer to several flat-screen TVs in his house. He recently appeared to his family on a wide-screen video chat while he was traveling in South Africa. Although the 44-year-old could be seen clearly, he couldn t be heard so he had to dial in from his cell phone and be put on speakerphone. It s a bummer when that happens, he says, and we have to pay for it.