Give Your Chats a Personal Touch With Free Videoconferencing

Set It All Up

Your first step into the world of videoconferencing--if your computer didn't come with a built-in camera--is to set up your Webcam. Nearly all Webcams are USB devices, so setup is generally very easy. In most cases, however, you should install the driver software before plugging in the camera, to ensure that your drivers function properly. In the case of most Logitech QuickCams, for instance, you will be prompted to plug in the camera at a specific point during the installation.

In addition to any audio controls that may be included with your Webcam's software, you can use Windows' Sound control panel to configure and test your microphone.
After installing the Webcam driver and plugging in the camera, you're only halfway finished. Your next step is to test the camera's microphone or install a separate mic and test it. If you're using a camera with a built-in mic, you can control the audio settings via the software that came with the Webcam. If, on the other hand, you're using a standard headset plugged into your PC's audio jacks, you should use the Sound control panel in Windows to select, configure, and test your microphone.

A few more points to consider before you get started: If you're telecommuting from home, pants may be optional, but a shirt isn't. Wear a solid color if possible, but especially avoid thin lines and patterns that can look jumbled on screen. Slow Internet connections will only worsen the appearance of an already complicated shirt pattern. And you'll look your best under lots of natural light. Ideally, position yourself near a bright window or other warmly lit source. Avoid having bright lights directly behind you, because they might confuse the camera's exposure.

Cross-Platform Video Chat With AIM

Unlike e-mail, videoconferencing lacks a single standard that lets all clients talk to one another. And because of complexities in video-chat protocols and video-codec licensing issues, third-party open-source IM apps such as Pidgin still don't support video chat at all. So for the most part, you can forget about chatting face-to-face with friends who use a different chat program than you do, with one notable exception: AIM can connect you to Mac users for whom Apple's iChat is the default video app.

Mac users on iChat can easily videoconference with Windows users on AIM.
To initiate an AIM videoconference from a PC, launch AIM and right-click the name of an online buddy. Choose Video... and then click Send to invite that buddy to a video chat. If your buddy is using iChat on a Mac, he or she will be prompted to click Accept to begin the conversation. To initiate a videoconference from a Mac, click the movie-camera icon next to a buddy's name. When prompted on their PC, that person should click Accept. If you don't see a movie-camera icon beside a person's name, that buddy doesn't have a camera activated on their computer.

Create Browser-Based Videoconferences and Video Mail With TokBox

I like the reliability of running a chat-and-video program on a computer, but browser-based tools can be ideal on a borrowed PC. TokBox creates videoconferences through Firefox or Internet Explorer, and it can even invite people who haven't signed up with any service to participate. AIM and Windows Live Messenger fans can sign in with those accounts, too, for regular chatting and for video calls to their contacts.

Tokbox's Flash-based videoconferencing software prompts you for permission to use your PC's Webcam.
To start a videoconference, sign in to TokBox and click Conference on the left side of the page. When a small Adobe Flash box prompts you for permission to use your Webcam, click Allow. (Since Flash is doing the heavy lifting, you should make sure that your version is current to avoid compatibility problems.) Then just send the conference link to your contacts. The link recipients don't even have to log in; they can just load up the browser page and click Allow to join the conference.

TokBox also lets you create recorded video messages that you can send to family members, colleagues, and friends. In the main TokBox page after logging in, just click Video Mail. Click Record Message, enter an e-mail address, add a text message below if you want to, and click Send. The recipient will get an e-mail with a private link back to your video file, which is hosted on TokBox's Web site.

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