Fifteen minutes of fame? Hey, you'll be famous as long as your camera has power, your dial-up networking connection doesn't drop, and there's a twinkle in your eye. Of course, Webcams serve plenty of other entertaining - albeit less glamorous - purposes. Wanna have a video chat with your travelling sweetheart? No problem: a Webcam turns your PC into a reasonably effective (if slightly complicated) videophone.
It sounds great, but let's come back to reality for a moment. Your Webcam may be capable of displaying 30 frames per second. Your car is also capable of accelerating to 220 kilometres per hour. If you're using a 56Kbps modem, your camera is as good as a Porsche on a crowded freeway - it will likely top out at a paltry few frames per second. Of course, you could set it up at the office, where you have that spiffy ISDN or digital data service line.
If you can live with the technology's inherent limitations, we'll help you get the pictures flying. The latest Universal Serial Bus cameras are a cinch to connect and produce sharp pictures. This article concentrates on cameras that take advantage of the USB port, but we'll also consider parallel port cameras for those who lack USB.
Step 1: Pick the perfect camera
PCI models - popular a few years ago - have basically been overtaken by USB cameras, which allow fast data transfer and offer true Plug and Play installation. If you have a USB-equipped PC, simply connect the cam to the USB port, install the drivers, and away you go.
The familiar eyeball-shaped Logitech (www.logitech.com) Quick-Cam is widely available. The high-end QuickCam Pro model has a recommended retail price of $299, and the QuickCam Express, which is capable of lower resolutions, is $99.95.
If your ageing PC lacks a USB port, you have to choose between a PCI camera and a parallel port model. PCI cameras require that you pop your case open and install an interface card, but you get a lot for your effort: PCI cams offer faster data transfer and a sharper picture than parallel port models, and the card can often capture video from other sources (a VCR, for instance).
If you limit your Webcam endeavours, you may prefer the convenience of a parallel port model, which connects to the same port that your printer does. Some parallel Webcams offer a pass-through port so you won't need to unplug your printer. Logitech, for example, offers the QuickCam Pro in a parallel version for the same price as the USB model. The parallel version of the QuickCam VC suits videoconferencing users, who typically can make do with the VC's slightly lower resolution (compared to that of the more expensive Pro). The VC sells for $199.95.
Step 2: Install the sucker
It's time to get connected. No big tricks here: aim the camera at your good side, crawl under your desk, and plug the camera into the appropriate port (USB or parallel). If you were brave and purchased a PCI cam, you'll have to perform minor surgery to get the interface card installed before you can plug the camera in. If you'll be using a microphone, connect it to the input jack on your sound card. Power up. Now install the drivers that come with your camera.
Webcams typically require very little in the way of system resources. If you plan to make videophone calls over the Internet, you'll likely want a full-duplex sound card as well, which allows you to simultaneously transmit and receive audio.
Of course, you need a connection to the Net - the faster the better. A 56Kbps modem should work fine, though audio may be a bit spotty. Consider upgrading to a cable modem or ISDN. If you plan to videoconference over a modem connection, consider using your software's text chat feature rather than two-way audio.
Step 3: Chat (or do something else!)
After you've connected your camera and installed the drivers, it's time to add applications. Your camera probably came bundled with software for sending video mail and recording short clips. If you don't like the programs that came with your cam, try something new.
There are plenty of alternatives out there. The granddaddy of them all - White Pine Software's (www.wpine.-com) CU-SeeMe chat client - lets you connect and chat with others via an online directory. CU-SeeMe Pro costs $US69. You can purchase the product online directly from White Pine.
Another widely used videoconferencing client, Microsoft's NetMeeting, may already be installed on your system - especially if you use Internet Explorer. It's also bundled with some cameras, including the Logitech QuickCam Pro. NetMeeting offers an easy-to-use, stable, feature-filled interface. Like CU-SeeMe, it offers file transfer, text chat, and whiteboard tools. Best of all, it's free.
Wish you were here
A few shareware alternatives let you send video mail. PicMail, compresses short video clips for attaching to e-mail messages, but your recipient must also have the program to view the clip. VideoMail 2.0 from ChilliSoft (www.chillisoft.com.au), a small Melbourne-based software company, takes a different approach: the software compresses videos in RealVideo format, so attachments can be viewed with the widely available RealPlayer 5.0 (or a later version). ChilliSoft offers a 15-day trial version; the full package costs $US14.95.
To publish a continuous series of images over the Web - a process known as Webcasting - you'll need to install server software on your system that puts video from your camera on the Web. These programs can be set up in a matter of minutes and run with little or no maintenance, although they may create a bit of a performance drag on slower PCs. After you've installed the server, you choose the number of updates per second you want to publish and adjust the quality of the image. Lower image quality usually means faster transfers, but your connection speed will make the biggest difference in your maximum frame rate, so you'll need a speedy Net connection that won't drop. And remember: when you turn off your computer, it's lights-out for your Webcast.
WebCam 2000 is a simple, freeware server designed specifically for Webcams. You can adjust the compression level of the JPEGs it produces, and choose between serving raw images or complete HTML pages with the graphic included.
If you need more features, check out Galacticomm's (www.galacticomm.com) WebCast Personal v2.02, which includes a chat room feature and an online directory so that folks can find your Webcast. Unfortunately, no demo is available for download.
If you'd rather not serve images directly from your PC, there is an alternative. Viziva Software's ChillCam takes charge of your camera and snaps images (just like WebCam and WebCast Personal), but rather than serving the pictures itself, it can FTP them to your ISP's Web server if you already have pages established there. ChillCam is a free download but costs $US25 to register.
Idle amusement, or serious security tool? Gotcha, from Prescient Systems (www.gotchanow.com), uses your Webcam as a motion detector and captures an image when it senses motion. You can even configure Gotcha to send you e-mail when something moves in front of the camera, or post the time-stamped images on the Web. And if that isn't sneaky enough, the program can act as a lookout, minimising a specified program - like a game or a Web browser - when someone (like your boss, perhaps?) walks by the camera. The possibilities boggle the mind. The 30-day trial is free to download and the product can be purchased online for $US69.95.
USB SUPPORT. Older versions of Windows 95 don't include USB support. To see if your version of Windows recognises USB, open the Control Panel (Start, Settings, Control Panel) and double-click Add/Remove Programs. In the list of installed programs, look for "USB Supplement to OSR2". If it's there, you're set. If it's not, you'll have to upgrade to Windows 98, because Microsoft never made USB drivers available separately for Windows 95.
PARALLEL PROBLEMS. If you're using a parallel port unit, you may need to reconfigure the parallel port to Extended Capability Port mode (with Direct Memory Addressing) in the PC's BIOS setup.