Recently I accepted a new job that will require me to be away from home every weekday for the next several months. While I'm much more fortunate than the hundreds of thousands of US military overseas who can't visit their families for months at a time, being with my family only on weekends will be tough.
But military families and my family do share one thing in common: We can see our loved ones on a regular basis (daily, in my case), thanks to the explosion of online video technology.
I remember films from the 1950s that showed people using futuristic video telephones. While phones aren't quite there yet (some cellphone companies offer "video calls," but they still count on your plan's overall minutes and quickly drain your batteries), computers can make video messaging possible – some of it free of charge.
The military has, in fact, used video conferencing whenever possible. The Video Journal of the Spokesman Review has a nice video piece about how an American soldier in Iraq was able to see his wife and new daughter the day after she was born. (www.spokesmanreview. com/blogs/video/archive.asp?postID=201) While the family had communicated frequently using their home computer's webcam via a special link provided by the military, in this case, the hospital arranged the video visit.
The obstacle many military families face is access to computers and webcams. Organizations like Freedom Calls Foundation, a nonprofit in Brooklyn, N.Y., arrange for families in the United States to use video equipment at local high schools and businesses to contact their husbands, wives, sons, or daughters serving overseas. In one instance, the foundation helped a soldier see and talk to an ill sister; in another, a soldier was able to see his daughter graduate.
For those of us in the US, it's becoming easier to connect by video. First, you'll need a webcam and a microphone. If you use a newer Mac, you may already have these features built-in (as you may have seen in the recent funny commercials comparing a PC to a Mac). Users of older Macs and PCs have to buy a webcam, which can cost you anywhere from $20 to $200. Setting it up is fairly simple.
Computer and electronics stores offer a variety of webcams. They are also easy to find online. But before you buy, make sure the program you choose supports your webcam. Most good sites will provide a list. (After I installed my program, I found that the webcam I'd purchased several years ago couldn't get a picture.)
Again, most new computers come with a microphone. But if you want a better one, you can pay about $30 for a good basic microphone or as much as $150 for a wireless set.
Ultimately, if you want to connect with friends and family via video, it's the software that counts. And there is some very good free software available online.
For PC users, Windows Live Messenger is a good place to start. The program is easy to install and use. Most important, it allows live video. (Some programs will only let you record video and then send it.) You can do plenty of other things as well, such as create "theme packs" for how your interface will look and start a blog on MSN Spaces' social networking website. Despite Apple's jabs at Microsoft, in this particular case the software giant has created a better program than its competitor.
But as much as I like this software, I chose SightSpeed, because it works on my PC as well as on my wife's Mac. I want the same programs on both machines, in case the computing giants get snippy and won't allow software from a competitor to work with its machine.
SightSpeed was easy to set up, but to use all of the program's features, there's a monthly fee of $4.95. (The paid subscription comes with a free microphone, but I paid a little extra to get a really good laptop webcam instead.)
So far, we've experimented with the SightSpeed software a few times with mostly positive results. I have found that the picture can be a little slow if the Internet is busy, and we occasionally get an echo on the audio portion of the call.
After using the webcam, one of my daughters said it was like "being on TV" – one of the highest compliments you can get from a 7-year-old. But she didn't like putting on the headsets we use for audio. We may switch to a stand-alone microphone that sits beside the computer, although the sound quality isn't as good.
Is it the next-best thing to being there? I won't know until I start traveling in a few weeks. But I like the way the young military father profiled in the Spokesman Review's video blog described it: "At least I can be there emotionally, even if I can't be there physically."
Other video software options include PalTalk, Yahoo! Messenger, Eyeball Chat, Festoon, Aim Triton, and IChat AV, to name a few. To find a more extensive list, visit TopTen Reviews (www.video-chat-im-software-review.toptenreviews.com/yahoo-review.html) and then try a few yourself until you find one that suits your needs.