Wednesday, July 2, 2003

Working with a team of people 2759 miles away (literally-- I measured it with a GPS unit) makes communication difficult. Pure voice or typing based communication carries significantly less information, especially when discussing ideas, plans, or reviewing graphical information. Even if the team shares screen shots or documents prior to the meeting, there is still a lot of verbal hunt-and-point as the team ensures that we are all on the same page.

For a conference call yesterday, we did a one-way video chat with iChat AV and an iSight that was pointed at the appropriate computer screen. While I couldn't read all of the text on the screen, I could immediately see exactly where in the various documents we were and it gave the folks on the other end the freedom to point to the various features/sections that we were discussing.

In other words, it vastly decreased the time wasted defining what we were talking about. It vastly increased the useful information bandwidth in the entire conversation.

Given that my TiBook's audio is all kinds of hosed (falling off a desk onto the rear left corner will do that), we used a plain old telephone line to handle the audio part. It worked quite well and there was only a slight delay between the POTS audio and the chat video.

This changes everything. Sure, video conferencing has been available for a long time and I have used a number of solutions. But nothing compares when it comes to ease of use (click on video icon) or cost (cost of broadband at both ends).

The iSight is an excellent, general purpose, A/V input for use with iChat AV. It works very well and has the advantage of being very easy to pick up and literally point to what you are speaking about. Of course, waving it around too much like a pointer could definitely lead to illness on the remote end. At $150, it is quite reasonably priced given the quality of engineering and the awesome design.

For greater quality, try a DV camcorder. Such a device offers numerous configuration options, will likely work across more varied lighting, and the zoom ability to zoom in on people, documents, or whiteboards during the video chat is quite handy. Camcorder based chatting has two downsides. First, it will be quite tempting for the person manning the camcorder to become complete distracted by their role as videographer. Secondly, many DV cameras don't like to produce DV video for long periods of time without recording-- they tend to go to sleep.

Already the iSight is immensely popular. They have been consistently ranked #1 or #2 on the sales chart at the Apple Store. A more telling indication is the vast number of articles and sights popping up.

Apple has published a series of knowledge base articles regarding iChat AV. Ports That Need to Be Open Behind Firewalls will be useful to many folks.

For those with a TiBook, sound is only produced through the right speaker to prevent feedback through the microphone.

O'Reilly has published an intro article and second article about how to make movies with your iSight. The second article has a number of excellent tips that are generally applicable to video capture.

iPoding has started a site dedicated to the iSight.

And, of course, the tips are flowing at

Update: I ordered two. They have arrived. Talk about killer industrial design! Even the packaging is well designed (like the iPod)!

Update: Let me emphasize that I am aware that iChat AV + iSight is certainly nothing new; everything that has been done with the two has been done in other products/tools before. The "changes everything" about iChat AV + iSight is that it flawless passes the "mom" test. That is, my Mom-- no dummy, but someone who uses the computer purely as a tool and not as her profession-- immediately understood the value of iChat AV + iSight and can use the thing from the moment it is hooked up. No other solution that I have encountered offers the same ease of use (plug and chat) at anywhere near the same cost ($150 for the camera+audio input + whatever/month for broadband). Certainly, it does not solve all video conferencing problems-- you can't do multiway conferencing, for example-- but it does a nice job of solving video conferencing within the market it is targeted.

It is kind of like the iPod or the Music Store. Nothing new with either product -- Apple simply did a better implementation than anyone else.
12:48:17 PM  pontificate