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Seeing Is Believing

When you think of videoconferencing, it might conjure up images of a cavernous corporate boardroom, its stiff executives sitting perched in front of costly cameras and viewing a slick video feed of colleagues in, say, Tokyo. Or perhaps you think of Joe Average staring into a cheap Webcam while squinting to make out a garish, stuttering, pixelated video of a friend or relative in, say, Tucson.

Over the past few years, however, those extremes have begun to merge. Because of the spread of broadband Internet connections and improvements in cameras, software and computer processors, consumer videoconferencing has begun to look much better. It’s still not as good as expensive corporate linkups, but it’s finally usable.

As this affordable video technology has spread, online services offering video chatting have proliferated. Yahoo, AOL, MSN and Apple all offer videoconferencing. So do a host of less-well-known services, such as Paltalk, IVE and Skype. All are free or have free entry-level plans, but they still cost money to use. For one thing, you’ll need a broadband connection — on both sides of the conversation — to get the most out of them. And, of course, you’ll need a decent camera, with either a built-in or separate microphone.

I expect built-in cameras to become common in all but budget PCs in the next few years, but for now, they’re relatively rare — Sony has been building them into a few models for years, Apple included built-in cameras in its new iMac desktop and MacBook Pro laptop models, and some Hewlett-Packard laptops feature them as well. But most users will have to buy a camera. The biggest brand in add-ons is Logitech, and the best Logitech model I’ve seen is the Quickam Fusion, which sells for around $85 and works only on Windows PCs. The best bet for Mac users is an even better but costlier camera, the $150 iSight from Apple.

Both cameras attach to the top edge of your screen and deliver up to 30 frames of video a second, which is full motion to the human eye. Both include decent built-in mikes. And both also function as still cameras for snapshots. The Logitech has a higher resolution, 1.3 megapixels, while the Apple takes still pictures of under 1 megapixel.

One advantage of the Apple iSight, not surprisingly, is that it’s better integrated into the computer. No software need be installed; you just mount it atop the screen with an included clip or magnetic base, plug it into a FireWire port, and voil?†. In fact, it automatically launches Apple’s built-in videoconferencing program, iChat AV.

Like most Windows peripherals, the Logitech camera is a little trickier to hook up, but not by much. It does require a software installation. The camera plugs into any open USB port, though it needs a newer USB 2.0 connection for full frame rate.

Both cameras have a lens-blocking privacy mode, which allows you to avoid being seen during a video call or conference. Only your voice will be heard. But Logitech goes further — it includes an amusing software feature called Video Effects that permits you to disguise your appearance. You can add animated glasses, mustache, nose, hat and other features to your face. Or you can replace your image entirely with animated avatars of cartoon people and animals, including a dinosaur, a space alien, a cat, a dog or a unicorn. And while these visual effects aren’t exactly Hollywood quality, they do move with you as you speak, mimicking some of your visual expressions, like winking or raised eyebrows, and no special software or video service is needed at the other end of the conversation for your friends to see the special effects.

Once you have your camera/mike combination in place, you’re ready to roll. All you need do is pick your service, find some friends with a camera and mike, and you can start videoconferencing.

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