Tuesday, November 29, 2005

fun with video phones

Last weekend, Coppertop and I got a couple of web cams so we can video conference. We settled on the Logitech Quickcam Pro for Notebooks. Now, she’s hanging out with a nice, fat DSL connection, static IP, the works. I’m using dial-up. Those of you playing from home can already see where this is going…

Anyway, for pure voice connections, we’ve been using Skype, which works well: generally very good voice quality, multi-platform support, free calling. Skype seems to use a healthy chunk of the dial-up bandwidth, but it still allows some room for web pages, e-mail, and so on. It doesn’t do video, though, so we downloaded video4im, some add-on software that does video over Skype calls. It’s not multi-platform, but we can both call from Windows machines.

Well, it turns out video uses a good bit more bandwidth than the dial up link can support. A few seconds into the call, Skype would just give up and drop it. So I downloaded AOL’s Instant Messenger (I normally use Trillian, which doesn’t seem to support video) to try it, and got crappy audio when the video was (unsuccessfully) trying to run. The audio quality was why we switched to Skype in the first place.

Now, it turns out there is a way you can have both video and audio over a dial-up connection. Sort of. Microsoft has some experimental software called Microsoft Portrait. It’s designed to work over very low bandwidth connections, as low as 9.6kbps. It does it by using efficient compression for voice, which sounds about like what you’d get over a cell phone, and by playing with the video quality. Supposedly it gives you full color video on a fast connection but switches to black and white on slower links. Well, it took one look at my dial-up and dropped into “make everyone a black and white silhouette” mode. A bit of adjustment added noses back to our faces, but it was still pretty low fidelity.

So it looks like I’ll finally break down, enter the 21st century, and spring for DSL. After finals, though, ‘cause there’s no way I’m going to risk messing up network access during finals.

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