See as you speak!

03rd October 2009
See as you speak!
clockwise from top left: HP Skyroom; Logitech's Quickcam and Vid software; Tandberg's HD Video Camera ( pix not to scale)

Advances in webcam technology, have brought high quality video conferencing to lay PC users – and one of  the best solutions has been crafted in India
Desktop and laptop PC owners have always enjoyed the ability to attach a video camera, commonly known as Webcam, to their display screens and to capture the scene in front of the computer. Coupled with the technology of VoIP or Voice over Internet Protocol, they could then add a video dimension to ‘free’ telephone calls using popular tools like Skype. While the savings in international telephone charges is a powerful incentive, few of us bother to ‘ see as we speak’ – because built-in web cams have tended to be of fairly poor quality and when coupled with slow connectivity, made for a poor experience with video out of sync with the voice. Really professional quality video Internet-based conferencing remained a costly solution – and the top end of this technology, generally known as Telepresence, cost so much that only the largest enterprises could afford the asking price that was in lakhs of rupees.
All that is about to change. Rapid advances in video camera technology – some of it from India -- have made high quality video conferencing so affordable that lay consumers can soon hope to conduct voice –and-picture conversations with friends and relatives, that match what corporates have been used to.
The Blue ray DVD has already given ordinary PC owners, a feel for high definition video: now they can experience the same picture quality with their Internet telephone calls, thanks to a solution just unveiled by Norwegian video products leader Tandberg. Interestingly, their Precision HD USB camera has been completely developed at the company’s Bangalore-based technology centre. ( ) Claimed to be the world’s first high definition camera for mobile and PC communications, the device is literally ‘plug-n-play’: slotted into the USB port of desktop or laptop PC, it latches on to the media player software – Real Player, Windows Media Player or whatever – and can be used in conjunction with any Internet telephone software like Skype, to set up a video call. If the person called does not have a similar HD camera at the other end, the Tandberg device downscales to support almost all standard formats. If used with Microsoft’s Office Communicator 2007 software, the entire call process is seamless and automatic. The resolution achieved is 1280 by 720 pixels at 30 frames per second (FPS) and the camera has advanced auto focus features that help it to latch on to the person or persons in its field of view. A small team of 26 engineers worked 18 months to deliver the camera which retails globally for $ 399 ( and approximately Rs 25,000 in India), says Pradeep Bardia, Director R&D at Tandberg Technology India.
Logitech solutions What about those who don’t need HD quality and who have already invested in one of those popular QuickCams from Logitech that are widely available in India for between Rs 3000 and Rs 9000? The Swiss –based company known for computer peripherals like mouse and keyboard, has launched a software download called Vid, ( ), which provides a very user-friendly video-chat environment with 640 by 480 pixels at 30 FPS. It uses email ID and user name – and unlike most free video conferencing software aids, doesn’t require you to acquire a new nickname. Logitech customers get free use of the software – while others can still enjoy it for 30 days.
HP Skyroom
The most recent announcement of a high quality desktop video conferencing tool came from Hewlett Packard at the annual Intel Developer Conference on September 22: HP calls “SkyRoom”, a low cost telepresence system for PCs, cannily placed between the expensive corporate solutions and the free online tools. The core of the HP offering takes high quality audio and video from up to four user, compresses and streams them to other participants, after decompressing them to their original quality. SkyRoom will be bundled free with all HP workstations shipped after October 1. But if your current PC hardware runs on a 2.5 GHz dual core processor with 2 GB of RAM, you can download and run the tool for $ 149 ( Rs 7500).
High Definition is here – your next TV purchase will likely, be a HD set and so will your new movie DVDs. Hooked on HD, you may soon say, “ That’s the way I want my video calls to go, too!”.

- Anand Parthasarathy

A shortened version of this article appears in the current ( Oct 5 - 11 2009) issue of The Week ( )