Video Conferencing Using iChat

Scientific collaboration is really difficult when you cannot talk directly with the person you’re working with. This has long made collaboration with distant colleagues cumbersome, to say the least. Fortunately, we live in the 21st century, and video conferencing technology now exists that is simple to set up, and works extremely well.

For the last few months, I have been using Apple’s video iChat software, and I can recommend it highly. It seems to have two major applications: connecting family members, and enabling business video meetings.

I have been video-conferencing with my colleague Stark Draper since he went to the University of Wisconsin earlier this summer. Video conferencing reliably works much better than phone conversations, and nearly as well as face-to-face meetings. It might seem surprising that it should be that big an improvement over phone conversations, but in fact human beings are very visual creatures, and a lot of information is conveyed by expressions and gestures. When you talk to somebody via video conference, they really seem like they’re with you in the same room.

If both you and your colleague have a recent Apple notebook or iMac with iSight camera built in, setting up iChat will be very easy; it just takes a couple minutes in all. You’ll need to sign up for a free trial .Mac account, which lets you use iChat (if you already have some other instant messaging account, like a Jabber account, you can also use that). The free trial lasts for 60 days after which you need to pay $100 if you want the full benefits of a .Mac account, but even if you don’t pay anything, you will still be able to continue to use your account for iChat. Since I wasn’t very interested in the other benefits of .Mac, that’s precisely what I did.

iChat uses the H.264 codec, which gives a very nice sharp image, although occasional video compression artifacts are noticeable (they’re interesting if you’ve worked on video compression, like me). There is also a very slight delay, which is noticeable, but not too bad. Actually setting up the video connection is trivial; it’s just a matter of knowing your partner’s .Mac account.

Other software like Skype exists for those of you with Windows or Linux. I don’t have any experience with video-conferencing with these services. If you do have such experience, and especially if you can compare with iChat, I’d be interested in your comments. Perhaps the main advantage for the Macs is just the fact that the camera is already built in.

Here’s a video that shows Steve Jobs demoing the new version of iChat that will be released with Leopard, the new version of Mac OS X coming out this month. It will give you a good idea of what a video chat is like; you might think that the reality is not so nice, but that’s essentially the quality I get with my video-conferences with Stark.

The upgrades for Leopard actually seem pretty minor to me; it will be nice to be able to share .pdf documents or presentations, but you can already basically do that by emailing the files. And I’m not too excited about the ability to distort my image or use weird back-drops. Originally, there was supposed to be a useful new feature in iChat for Leopard which enabled you to share your desk-top with your video partner, but it’s not clear whether that feature has been moved to another part of Leopard, delayed, or dropped altogether. We’ll soon find out. UPDATE: It looks like the desktop-sharing feature exists after all, which is excellent news, especially for people wanting to help out their computer-challenged friends and relations. However both sides of the chat will need to have Leopard for this to work.

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