Video Conferencing on a Budget
Travel costs are rising as fast as fluctuations in global weather systems that stop you getting to work, but recent advances in the quality of Web audio and video conferencing technology means colleagues and business partners have other options for face-to-face meetings.
Good quality webcams are widely available at low cost, and video conferencing software able to support basic but effective business communication is often available for free. It’s not hard to use, but you can give customers the best experience if you know how to set things up.
Setting up the Logitech Quickcam Pro 9000
We set up two Logitech QuickCam Pro 9000 USB 2.0 Web cameras (around £50 each at the time of writing) on standard PCs and used the latest version of Skype for video conferencing. In many cases, the cameras embedded in some laptops will also serve the purpose, and have the advantage of taking up less space and being less awkward than external cameras.
That said, laptop cameras are unlikely to match the quality of the auto focus and lighting correction on the 2 megapixel Logitech Pro 9000, which transmits at an adequate 30 frames per second (FPS) and takes snapshots at resolutions up to 960x720 (though its best to keep it at 320x240 or 640x480 to ensure compatibility with the remote computer).
The Pro 9000’s microphone is also much better than you would find on the average PC sound card or laptop. This is crucial because whilst a conference can still go on if the picture is lost, it is finished as a communications session if poor quality audio stops participants from hearing each other properly.
Installing the Pro 9000 is simple, with drivers and a configuration utility provided on CD that must be installed before the camera is attached to a spare USB 2.0 port. It may help to temporarily disable any anti-virus software before starting the installation.
All of our test systems picked up Windows Vista and XP drivers straight away, but drivers for other OS’s are not supplied.
A sturdy, multi-positional bracket on the back of the camera allows it to be angled onto the user’s face. The default camera settings work perfectly well, apart from one change that needs to be made to the audio set-up. From the Logitech QuickCam menu, click on Change Settings, then the tab with a picture of a microphone, and scroll through the Select Microphone options to find and choose the Logitech Mic (Pro 9000) device. Using the Audio Tuning wizard on the same menu can help make sure that the microphone and speakers are optimised for best pickup and playback in specific working environment.
The camera offers a variety of tweaks for different positional and lighting scenarios on the QuickCam Change Settings tab. Pan, tilt and zoom settings can be manually configured if necessary, alongside brightness, contrast, colour and white noise.
Clicking on the RightLight settings also you to adjust low light saturation, low light boost, video noise and spot metering, though using the Automatic RightLight Settings option (turned on by default) proved adequate in our tests.
Configuring Skype for Video Calls
Skype was first developed as a peer-to-peer Internet telephony tool, but the latest version (www.skype.com/intl/en/download/skype/windows/) also includes a video calling utility that is easy to use and functions effectively as a basic peer-to-peer video conferencing utility. If you use it with certain Logitech webcams, you get a higher-quality video feed.
Each user needs to be registered with Skype and assigned a username and password (existing Skype users can use the details they already have).
With the software installed and the user logged in, test the video and audio setup using Skype’s integral testing tools. Again, depending on individual PC setup, Skype can automatically default to using the microphone supplied with the PC sound card, so check that it is configured to use the Pro 9000’s microphone. To do this, choose Tools > Options > Audio Settings from the Skype Menu, then highlight Logitech Mic (Pro 9000) from the drop-down list.
It is important to test speaker amplitude and the quality of your microphone before making any video call. To do this, highlight the Echo/Sound Test Service entry in the Skype Contacts tab, and click on the green Call button.
After reading out a short message to test the PC’s audio output, the automated attendant will ask users to record a short message, then play it back to make sure that the PC microphone is working properly.
Experiment with microphone settings for optimal performance by clicking on Tools > Option > Audio Settings and clearing the Automatically adjust microphone settings’ box.
A degree of collaboration is provided by the instant messaging function, which at least allows you to send blocks of text or URLs that can be cut and pasted from the dialog box into other applications. The Send File option at the top of the IM box also allows users to share files, though the bandwidth is rate limited meaning transmission can be slow.
No software application is ever safe from determined hackers, but Skype has a very basic level of built-in security, using digital certificates created during registration to establish the identity of the person placing or receiving the call. You can set it to allow only people in the user’s contact list to be able to call them, or even block all video calls completely.
Expectations and Performance
The performance of all video conferencing solutions depend on the Internet bandwidth at both ends of the link. Realistically, minimum download and upload data rates of 8Mbit/s and 512Kbit/s are necessary, even though hardware and software vendors will claim you can make successful calls with slower links.
We conducted tests over both 54Mbit/s Wi-Fi, and fixed 1Gbit/s network local area networks linking into 8Mbit/s ADSL connections. We could detect no discernible latency or jitter to prevent effective two-way conversations during any of our video calls, and the quality of the video displayed in a standard 320x240 window was good.
Using higher 640x480 and 960x720 video resolutions can adversely affect performance depending on available Internet bandwidth and PC specification, and if the PC at the other end of the link can’t support the same resolution there may be display incompatibilities. But if you can make the higher-quality video work for a call, you’ll not only see each other more clearly, you’ll be able to hold papers up to the camera and have the image be legible.
We sometimes found that the session would freeze for a few seconds before the video and audio returned, with Skype resetting picture quality to a lower and heavily-pixellated resolution before resuming, though audio quality was not affected.
Skype offers ‘follow the face’ function (turned off by default) that tracks the movement of the participant’s head. This works fairly well when only one user is in the camera’s field of vision, but overly excessive panning and zooming can be annoying, especially when there are multiple people in view.
We tested a variety of audio setups, ranging from laptop speakers, to standard PC speakers and full sound surround audio systems. As you would expect, the quality varies according to the sophistication of the setup, but crucially, speech is clearly audible over even the weakest configuration, the laptop speakers.
Alternative video conferencing software
You don’t have to use Skype – there are lots of other video conferencing applications, such as Windows Live Messenger, as well as Web based video conferencing services such as WebEx.
Live Messenger offers similar person to person video calling to Skype, with supported webcam resolutions of up to 640x480, tied to instant messaging chat and file sharing; again you have to sign up to a (free) Windows Live ID and email account. The latest version, Live Messenger 9.0, also has the ability to send SMS texts from within the software interface (note that this facility requires you to send two texts at £1.50 each to get the necessary code).
WebEx Meeting Center offers Web conferencing for up to 25 participants, as well as the ability to share presentations and applications such as Excel on screen. Security is provided by 128-bit SSL and AES encryption, and WebEx is SAS 70 and WebTrust certified. WebEx is not a free service, though you can download a 14-day trial from www.webex.co.uk. You can also register for the forthcoming WebEx ISV partner programme at http://try.webex.com/mk/get/webex_connect.
The Skype help guide:
A useful guide for network administrators worried about Skype security: