We humans are a very visual lot. Ever since someone scratched the first drawing on a cave wall to tell a story, we've relied on images to get our point across.
Today, nothing much has changed. Visual images tell us everything from how good that new suit looks to the mood of our co-workers as they arrive at the office.
Indeed, experts agree we constantly use non-verbal queues to give more meaning to our communication. It might be hard to tell if someone's lying when they're on the phone, but see them face to face and it's a totally different matter. Think your boss is being sarcastic? Just watch her expression and you'll know.
Obviously it's not always possible to be near the person you're communicating with, but, armed with the right equipment, you can have the next best thing -- video calling. Once the exclusive domain of large companies with big budgets, video calling has gone mainstream and growing numbers of people are finding out just what a difference it can make.
Whether you're travelling on business and want to say goodnight to your children, or just gossiping with a friend across town, making a video call adds another dimension to the experience.
And the good news? It's easy to do. Gone are the days of needing expensive equipment and costly data links. Indeed, many homes already have all the gear required. It's simply a matter of following a few simple steps and you're away.
There are many different models of Webcams on the market tailored to different requirements and budgets, so it's worth spending a little time to compare offerings from different companies.
It's also worth considering whether you'll be making most of your video calls from a desktop or notebook computer as this will have a bearing on the type and size of camera you should buy. Check out the CNET.com.au Webcam Buying Guide for details on a range of models currently on the market.
Of course, increasing numbers of notebook computers have inbuilt Webcams, which does away with the need for a separate external device. Virtually all of the recently reviewed laptops on CNET.com.au sport one, from the tiny, cheap and cheerfulto the mammoth .
Just as telephone calls go through an exchange and e-mails through your Internet provider's servers, so video calls need a method of finding their way through the Internet to the person you're calling. Luckily there are a range of services you can use.
Each service has dedicated computer servers that take your incoming video signals and pass them on to the person you're trying to reach. Once they answer your call, their video images are passed back through the Internet to your PC.
Some of the most popular video calling services are offered by companies such as Yahoo, Microsoft and Skype. As well as being easy to use, they have the big benefit that video calls can be made for free.
Yahoo offers a suite of communications tools called Yahoo7 Messenger, available for download. As well as video calls, Messenger gives you access to a wide range of other services. These include everything from e-mail and instant messaging to search and Internet radio stations.
When logged into the service you have the option of making your Webcam available to others. When they accept your invitation they'll be able to see you. Accept an invitation from them, and you'll be able to do the same.
You'll need to juggle a number of windows to see and be seen using this service, but the quality of the video broadcasts is worth the effort. If you're using a decent speed broadband connection, Yahoo7 automatically detects it and offers a "super" button within the window. Selecting this gives you more detailed video images.
Microsoft's Windows Live Messenger
Microsoft's Live Messenger software makes video calling very straightforward. First download the application and install it on your computer. Then work through the series of wizards which helps ensure you have the correct settings and levels for your audio and video gear.
You'll need to sign up for a Windows Live (or Hotmail) account and then use your created ID to sign in to the service. Once that's done, it's simply a matter of selecting the person you want to call from your contact list and establishing a video call.
When they answer, you will receive video from their Webcam while being able to see what video you are sending them in a second smaller window. As well as the two-way video call, you can also conduct a text chat within the same application.
Because of the popularity of Skype, chances are you'll find more of your friends and family using this service than any other.
Start by downloading the latest version of the free Skype client software (version 3.6) onto your PC and set it up by following the straightforward wizards. If you don't already have a Skype name you can also select one at this point.
Skype has been working closely with Webcam manufacturer Logitech to improve the standard of video calls on its service and now offers what it calls "High Quality Video".
This new service uses an image resolution of 640x480 pixels running at up to 30 frames per second. This compares with the previous system that offered resolutions of only 320x240 pixels at 15 frames per second.
Skype recommends users wanting to make video calls have a computer with a dual-core processor and a broadband Internet connection. The company warns that, while video calls are possible with other types of Webcams, you can only get the higher resolutions when using models from Logitech. Recommended models include the QuickCam Pro 9000 and the Logitech QuickCam Sphere AF.
As well the services listed above, you can also opt to use one of a range of other dedicated video calling services that exist on the Internet. One example is SightSpeed which offers a free service allowing PC to PC video calls.
Built from the ground up for video calling, SightSpeed has an easy-to-use interface and a proprietary processing algorithm that removes unnecessary information from images -- such as backgrounds that don't change. The end result is more fluid video and a better overall experience.
For consumers there is a free version as well as a paid version with extra features. There is also another version available for business users.
The free consumer service lets you conduct person-to-person video calls, instant messaging sessions and provides a video e-mail box where others can leave messages when you are not online.
The paid version (currently available for US$9.95 per month) adds the ability to make four-way video calls and gives unlimited storage space for video messages.
Mobile video calls
Another way to enjoy video calls is to forget about your PC and instead grab your mobile phone. As the speeds offered by mobile networks have increased during recent years, using a compatible handset to make and receive video calls has become reality.
Third-generation networks operated by Telstra, Vodafone, Optus and 3 Mobile all support video calls. It's worth checking out the Web sites of each of the carriers as prices and available handsets are different for each.
Video call quality on mobile handsets tends to be lower than that available on PCs, however the convenience of being able to make the calls from wherever you happen to be can make up for any shortfalls.
How to get the best possible video calling experience
Once your Webcam and video calling service is up and running, there are a few easy tips to follow that will ensure you have the best possible online experience. They include:
- Minimise movement: Sure, you'll be tempted to show off your latest dance steps to Aunty Matilda, but for the rest of the time try keeping movement to a minimum. This will reduce the amount of information that has to be sent in each frame of video and ensure you transmit and receive the clearest pictures possible.
- Check your lighting: Desk lighting is usually set up to help you see your screen and documents, rather than showing off your face in the best possible way. Tilt your lamp so it lights your face, or open the window blinds to let in some daylight. The result will be better quality video.
- Use a headset: Many Webcams have an inbuilt microphone that can be used along with the PC's speakers to make and receive calls. However you'll get much better voice clarity if you opt for a headset microphone instead. It might detract from your cool on-screen image, but at least people will be able to hear what you're saying. It will also help to solve any feedback problems that happen when the sound from your speakers is picked up by the microphone.
- Use a fast Internet connection: Video calls love speed, so use the fastest Internet connection you can. The reward will be smoother images and less jagged body movements. Everyone will look better.
The future of video calling
While it's predominantly a computer-based activity at the moment, within the next few years can you expect to be making video calls using your high-definition television set. Rather than crowding around a PC in the study, family groups will be able to make two-way calls from the comfort of the living room couch.
High-definition video calling is already available in the corporate world. Companies such as Cisco and HP have developed systems that allow groups of executives in different locations to meet across a virtual boardroom table.
Both companies are planning to take the video compression technology used by their services and build it into consumer-style offerings. Expect these to start appearing on the market within the next two years.
Eventually, video calls will become as much a part of everyday life as voice phone calls. Cameras connected to high-definition television screens will change the way people stay in touch, regardless of where they happen to be. The future, it seems, will be visual.