Chat in full colour

Let's face it: so far, the 21st century bears depressingly "little resemblance to the cartoony utopia prophesied by The Jetsons. Personal spacecraft and cybernetic servants are nowhere in sight. So I look for glimmers of Jetsonian living where I can. And that's how I got interested in talking with far-flung friends and co-workers via Web-based video chat - just like the first family of the future did.

Geeky types have been propping cute little webcams atop their monitors and making Internet video calls for years. Only recently, though, has the medium inched toward truly affordable point-and-click simplicity.

Today, cost is no longer much of a stumbling block: you can get a webcam for about the price of a decent mouse. I did my chatting with Creative Labs' $130 Video Blaster Web Cam 3, a USB-based model that took me 10 minutes or so to install. Some basic models cost even less.

What's more, a new wave of free services eliminates the hassle of earlier, quirkier video conferencing applications such as Microsoft's NetMeeting. Eyeball Chat LE (www.eyeball.com) and SeeSaw.com (www.seesaw.com), the two offerings that I tried, use proprietary compression techniques to improve image and sound quality, which I figured would benefit further from my cable modem's plentiful bandwidth.

When my PC was ready to go, though, I found that those of my distant friends often weren't.

Microphone trouble was a recurring hobgoblin - even people who had working webcams didn't always have mikes hooked to their PCs, or had them improperly installed. (At one point, a colleague could hear me but I couldn't hear him; he cleverly improvised by scrawling notes and holding them up to the camera.) Others needed to download the latest version of Microsoft's DirectX (see the cover CD).

Once everything's working, just how satisfying is video chat? It was great to view distant chums I don't often see in person, even if they looked a tad fuzzy. And audio quality was better than I'd anticipated - good enough to carry on a real conversation.

But George and Jane Jetson would undoubtedly sneer at video chat circa 2001. Both Eyeball and SeeSaw showed incoming images in partial-screen windows that at their best were jumpy. Picture quality often became blurry, blocky, or dim. (Hint: tell your video pals to crank up the lighting near their PCs.) My friend Kip, who spent a couple of hours video conferencing with me one evening, compared it to watching a satellite feed from a Soviet space capsule. I can't disagree with that assessment.

One other major caveat: like many a nascent technology before it, video chat is something of a red-light district. Whenever I peeked into SeeSaw's chat rooms - which let you converse with up to 149 other cam users, with two video windows on view at a time - no more than a handful of souls occupied its all-ages areas.

In contrast, hundreds huddled in the "Go-Go Nightclub", a section whose name didn't begin to convey its tawdry nature. At least you get warning messages when you try to enter that section, and parents can password-protect it to prevent kids from wandering into trouble. You can also create a private chat room that's open only to you and your comrades, so there's no chance of unsavoury types barging in.

SeeSaw was being used by just a few thousand beta testers when I visited; the people who run it say that all-ages activity should pick up once the service goes public. The free video chat for individuals at SeeSaw has since been moved to CameraCafe (See 'Pick a system', below) and SeeSaw appears to focus now on corporate business and setting up work-related meetings.

Eyeball Chat has recently launched its open chat rooms. Rooms are organised by region, language, peer group, interests and hobbies, and 'romance'.

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