Saturday, June 03, 2006

Fast and Easy Video Web-Cam Setup

(Or...How to set up a web-cam for free video-to-video calling in 9-steps or less!)

In a previous post I mentioned that I had recently picked up a new toy for the pc. It's a web-cam. Not impressed? Well up to this point neither was I.

To be honest, I have considered web cams as being a very "niche" pc accessory. Let's be honest between friends. You know exactly what I'm talking about; watch a sunset, watch the traffic, watch fish in a tank, remote monitor a LAN room, watch the sorority girl and her friends...umm...share study techniques? Anyway, not really useful for daily living enhancements.

Each summer Alvis heads off to spend summer weekdays on the "farm" with Lavie's parents. We stay in touch throughout the day and night by phone, but she is a pre-teen now and sometimes a phoned "good-night" doesn't just cut it. The in-laws have a nice, new and decently-fast Dell along with a DSL connection. Green Acres it isn't anymore! I have our Shuttle system and cable-broadband. I figured the in-laws were sufficiently advanced now in computing to handle video to video web-cam operations and this would allow both Lavie to stay in better touch with her mom as well as us staying in closer touch with our daughter during the week's absence.

So, Claus was on a mission. Set up two web-cams for video-to-video calling--Jetsons style.

Step 1. Make sure your system can handle it.

As I mentioned we both had good pc's (both are running Windows XP SP2) able to handle the processing demands easily. We both also had broadband Internet service. OK. Check. Mission cleared to proceed.

Step 2. Get a web-cam.

(Well, in this case...get two.) I went to our local BestBuy and found two Logitech QuickCam Communicate STX web-cams. The specs were decent and quality seemed nice. It uses a fixed-focus lens and had automatic brightness adjustments. USB connection. Getting a matched set makes setup that much easier and if something goes wrong on the in-law's side, I have an exact duplicate to compare software, drivers, etc. against. It also comes with a built-in microphone and glows with a purdy blue light when "active"--just like my Shuttle does.

Step 3. Installation of Hardware.

I loaded up the software driver CD that came with the web-cam. Being an IT pro. I instantly decided against the default installation and chose "custom". This way I could install just the drivers and basic software. I didn't need or want any of the other imaging software "candy" that came with it. Once the drivers were installed, I checked for updates (none found) and rebooted the system. Before it came back up, I plugged in the web-cam and XP recognized it and finished setting it up. There is a little icon in the tray now for additional tweaking of colors, brightness, etc. I've decided to leave it visible (for now).

Step 4. Installation of web video-to-video software.

Now this was the challenge. In order to make a video-to-video call, both parties need to find a way to hook up and get their web cam signals trading. The Logitech cam I picked up comes with a good selection of software on the included CD including popular ones like AOL-AIM, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo! Messenger. Unfortunately, I've spent too much time pulling these applications off the pc's where I work (unauthorized installations and a security issue) I've developed an (maybe unfair) bias against them. Also, I really don't like all the "extras" they seem to come with. There was also Microsoft's NetMeeting software (easy usage guide here) that I was familiar with.

In the end however, I decided to try a relatively new video calling service called SightSpeed. It had a nice interface and got high marks across the net. They also offer free unlimited video calling as well as a reasonable "Pro Service Plan" for less than $5.00 a month with enhanced features over the free "Basic Service" plan that I chose. Convinced it was a legit service, I registered: "I want the basic plan, no I don't need to buy a web-cam, but thanks for asking, here's what I want for my user name, password and email address". I responded to the email confirmation to activate my account. I downloaded the application and then installed it. Quick and easy--finished this whole process in less than five minutes.

The software then ran through a well-designed, but simple to follow configuration and optimization routine and then it was ready.

To connect to your friend/family member, you just have to add the other party's SightSpeed registered email address in your contact list. When they are not available, a grey dot is next to their name. When the are on line but not connected, there is a red dot. When your connected, it's green. How simple is that?!. You can view your video call full screen or in a window and you can also text-chat at the same time. The interface is clean and pleasing and options easy to adjust on the fly.

The whole process seemed very intuitive--that's a Good Thing with me.

Step 5. Go back to BestBuy and sheepishly obtain two USB microphone headsets.

I really should have done this to begin with. The problem--I quickly found out--was feedback from the pc speakers being too close to the web-cam microphone rendered the sound impossible to work with. If you are going to do web-cam video-to-video calling, take my advice: You may think you look like a geek, but you are a geek if you use video-to-video calling. Just get the thing and use it. You'll be glad you did. It effectively isolates the sound from the microphone and makes it much easier and clearer to hear each other. Just do it.

Step 6. Repeat steps 3 and 4 on the other party's pc.

This assumes you have already got two headsets from step 5.

Step 7. Make your call!

Everything is working like a charm. We tested this out on our internal network using Lavie's laptop in the living room and the Shuttle in the den. Nice.

Step 8. Final Deployment.

Repeat step 6 again but do the final setup of the second camera and mic on the in-law's pc. Show them how to set it up and use it. Make sure some written notes are left. Done!

Step 9. Sit back and enjoy!

You are now an "IT Hero (TM)" and "Cool Dude (TM)." Bask in the glory and enjoy the delight from the girl and Girl (and impressed in-laws to boot).

I really like SightSpeed's service and cannot say enough about it. The video compression is quite nice. There is some "choppiness" in the video, but I think that is coming from the speed differential between our cable broadband versus the in-laws' DSL. Neither pc seems to be slowed down at all by the software or video-to-video process. The whole SightSpeed experience is a breath of fresh air for setting something like this up. Tech geeks should be pleased with the quality and ease of configuration. Noobies should have no fears in any of the registration or setup or usage process. Their website is full of wonderfully approachable video tutorials and there is great documentation and troubleshooting tips. I'm sold on SightSpeed. Anything that is "in-law proof" is good enough for this IT guy!

One other thing: If you do try to experiment with web-cam video-to-video calling on your internal network, you run the risk of really confusing the crap out of your router/switch if you aren't careful!

After taking the web-cam off Lavie's laptop and trying to connect to SightSpeed, their software couldn't see their server any more. Nada. Turns out the router got confused with the port-forwarding. The website PortForward does a wonderful job guiding you to select your router model, then your specific application and illustrating clearly how to modify your router's port settings to handle the special port traffic. If you don't use/have an internal network, but just hit the web directly to your ISP you shouldn't have to worry about this. My firewall (ZoneAlarm) didn't have any issues with SightSpeed once I granted permission for that software's traffic to pass through.

(IT geeks really need to go and bookmark PortForward and keep it handy. It's a great and wonderful tool for living in peace with your home-router if you use more specialized applications regularly (like SightSpeed or TightVNC for example).

So there you go! No more excuses. Go set up your web cam and get connected, Jetson style!

See you in the skies!

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