When we find ourselves far away from the kids or grandkids, we have to get a little creative about staying close emotionally and in touch personally. One of the best things we have done with our distant grandchildren is to purchase and install web cameras and begin web conferencing and web chatting with them. We have had the chance to watch our little two year old granddaughter grow up before our eyes as we see and talk with her over the Internet almost every week.
It is not that hard, nor that expensive to create an opportunity to both see and hear your children, grandchildren or other loved ones regularly. So here are the essentials for setting up your own web conferencing or web chatting opportunities for keeping in touch with your family members.
What you Need
The basics for setting up your own videoconferencing with the family involve each party having a web camera, a microphone, a broadband connection and computer speakers for group communications.
Web Camera. The first piece of advice is to not be stingy when it comes to buying a web camera. To work effectively with a web chat or web conferencing service, you will need a web camera that uses CCD (charge-coupled device) technology, captures 30 frames per second and has a 640x480 resolution. A camera with these specs will capture a good picture even with poor lighting indoors. Expect to spend about $80 to $100 per camera. There are cheaper versions available, with slower speeds or lower resolution, but I would not recommend them.
Microphone. Just about any microphone will do. If it is just you wanting to be involved in the video conference, a microphone built into a headset will do. Often you can find a webcam with a built-in condenser microphone, which is great for groups.
Broadband connection. You will need at least a DSL line, fiber or a cable modem to really enjoy the web conferencing process. A dial-up connection is just not fast enough to process the video needed for anything more than video chat, and even that is spotty.
Speakers for group communication. If you are going to have more than one person on either end of the conference, you'll want some good amplified computer speakers to hear what is going on.
Options for Webconferencing
If you want to get involved in videoconferencing with your family, you have a number of options, many of which are free or quite inexpensive. A lot depends on the duration and the quality you want.
Video Chat. Video chat is really an instant messaging program on steroids. Rather than just sending text, video chat services let you send video and audio as well. You can enter into a public or a private chat room and connect via your webcam and microphone. There are a wide variety of these services including ivideochat, Camfrog and ISPQ.
Meeting Services. Some services are a little more extensive and provide a better user experience. These services are actually used for lower-end web conferencing for business and industry. One of the more popular services is Skype, which at least for now offers free video meetings. Another one is WebEx, which has an affordable charge. Both parties must register for the service and connect at an appointed time. But both offer a very good service at a reasonable price.
VideoPhone. Another option that avoids using the computer and the Internet altogether is a videophone. This device connects to your existing analog phone line and includes a built-in camera. The quality is not quite as good as a high-bandwidth web conference but it will still let you see each other if you are in close proximity to the phone. One of the more popular versions is the Beamer.
What To Do Online
With some version of videoconferencing with the family, there is lot you can do. Just visiting and catching up is good. With our remote family, we have read stories to the grandkids; we have played games on Skype on New Years Eve; our son has played chess with his brother focusing the camera on the chess board; and we have shared photos, artwork and craft projects. You are really only limited by your imagination.
So set up your system and get connected. Web conferencing with your family members really is the next best thing to being there.