iSight & iChat AV beta
IntroductionVideo conferencing has been on the Internet for ages. Unfortunately the technology has mostly been used by people to look at each other naked. Apple now has the software and hardware to make this technology work, and hopefully make it a bit more useful to people who don't want to see each other naked. There are two parts to the recipe for video conferencing. There's the software, iChat AV, and the hardware, Apple's iSight camera. The software, currently available as a public beta, is an addition to the iChat instant-messaging software. In the same way that iChat offered a simple way to get chatting to via the keyboard, iChat AV allows voice or video conferencing when the iSight is attached. Once installed the iChat icon gains a little video-camera symbol denoting its AV capabilities. When your chat buddies are online they can have additional symbols next to their names to indicate whether they are available to text-chat, audio chat or full-video chat. If they have the right gear for a video link, then just click on their camera symbol and you'll be hooked up in seconds. Match of delay
You'll need a broadband connection for the video conferencing to work; modem connections can still audio-conference, though. Once you're connected you can do something that has been an issue with some other video-conferencing solutions: you can both talk at the same time. When I tested it with a friend who lives in San Francisco there was a slight delay, though the sound lip-synced, which is very important. The delay, though slight, was a little off putting, but I've had worse telephone connections so don't consider it a major problem. The connection was similar when connecting to people closer to home, but with less delay - if any at all. It's important to understand that all this was done through multiple firewalls without any kind of special setup. As far as I can tell, if you can text-chat with somebody, then you'll be able to video conference without any problems. The video window appears in a decent-sized window on screen, but you do have the option to make it a full-screen image. This shows some blockiness, but it's more natural to speak to somebody like this - instead of peering into a small window. One thing that's odd is the eye contact, or lack of it. As you look at your screen you aren't looking into the camera. So it will appear that you are not looking directly at your friend. There really isn't much you can do about this, but I suspect good conferencing etiquette will demand that you spend at least some of the time looking directly into the lens. Which is silly really because you won't be getting real eye contact as you look away from the screen. But the alternative is you looking a bit shifty, which won't do for sales calls. The quality of image is very important to the success of video conferencing. Apple has set the standard for image quality with the iSight camera. It's small and compact, and includes an auto-focusing lens and excellent microphone. It connects using FireWire, and is capable of 640-x-480-pixel resolution at 30 frames per second. A nice feature is the twist-to-open iris, which will launch iChat AV when you open the camera's eye. The image is better than anything I have ever seen from any web-cam before. The camera comes with three stands, one to clip on your laptop, one to stick to your monitor, and one to stick to the desk. Yes I did say stick-to, which means once you have stuck your stand to your monitor it stays, albeit discreetly, stuck. You can, of course, easily unclip the camera. A better solution would have been a stand that attaches by gently gripping with a tightening screw. No doubt either Apple or third-party companies will come up with alternatives. Positioning the camera is a tricky business, though the top of the monitor is the most natural place for it. Unfortunately my home setup means that the top of screen position looks down on my expansive forehead, causing some glare issues. But no matter where you put the camera, it won't be in the ideal position, which would be right in the centre of the screen.