Everyone is talking about those telepresence systems that make a video conference look so real you’d almost think you were in the same room with the people at the other end. Very nice, but if you’re a small business, installing that sort of facility is out of the question and even renting one involves a chunk of cash you wouldn’t spend lightly.
Take heart. Video conferencing is within everyone’s reach. In fact, you can do it for free. No, you won’t get the same experience as with an expensive telepresence system, but you can get reasonable quality for little or no cost.
Several services offer basic internet-based video conferencing free, with added features at a modest cost.
The best known is Skype, the internet phone service that now includes video calling. If you have a computer equipped with a webcam and audio, you can do a video call with any Skype subscriber, at no charge.
“What Skype is really useful for is building relationships,” says A. Traviss Corry, director of business development at Aden Earth. The Toronto startup is building The Plant Encyclopedia, a Wikipedia-like online encyclopedia focusing on cultivated plants. Using an open-source approach, Aden Earth is soliciting contributions from many volunteers, and the company is working with developers in Canada, the U.S. and India.
Corry says video conferences help the team get to know each other and understand each other better.
Skype video calls work well provided both parties have good fast internet connections, he says. When people are working over Wi-Fi connections in coffee shops, the results aren’t so good. Both parties to the video conference must have Skype accounts (which are free).
Corry says Aden Earth also tried the video chat feature on Google’s Gmail, but he considered Skype faster. Google’s video chat is another no-cost option for two-way video calls, though. As with Skype, both parties need free Gmail accounts.
Lowell, Mass.-based Dimdim Inc. offers web collaboration services that include video conferencing as well as document sharing and other features. The free version of Dimdim will connect up to 10 people at a time. The Pro version is $25 per month and allows for up to 50-person meetings plus file sharing, video recording and other features. The Business version adds more features for $396 per user per year.
While Skype and Google are good for one-to-one video calls, maintains Mike Puglia, Dimdim’s vice-president of business development, Dimdim is better suited to larger groups – and there’s no software to install, because it’s browser-based. That makes ad-hoc meetings easy, he says.
OoVoo LLC of New York claims superior video and audio quality is what sets its service apart. “If you’re interested in a higher-quality experience you would choose ooVoo, says Marty Walker, the company’s chief operating officer. Though ooVoo has client software, it also lets you send a simple web link to someone you want to join a video conference, allowing that person to participate without downloading client software.
Gordon McKay, president and chief executive of Pharamalytics Ltd. in Saskatoon, upholds ooVoo’s quality claim. “The thing that’s most amazing about it is the clarity of the video and the fact that there’s virtually no time lag between what you see and what you hear,” says McKay, whose company does research and development work for major pharamaceuticals firms and needed an economical way of communicating with people all over the world.
Oovoo has an advertising-supported free version that allows two-way video calls with text chat, file transfer and video call recording. Paid versions start at $9.95 (U.S.) a month for three-way calling, up to a version that can handle six video connections and add up to six audio-only participants by calling ordinary phone numbers. Oovoo plans to add mobile versions for the Android and iPhone platforms in late 2010 and early 2011, Walker says.
Livecage, of Los Angeles, offers a free video conferencing service for as many as 10 users, along with audio and video webcasting services and social networking features. It doesn’t require participants to install software – just open a free account to participate in a conference via a web browser
For those with slightly deeper pockets, there are services priced at around $50 a month and up, the best known of which is Cisco Systems Inc.’s WebEx at $49.95 (U.S.) per month. You can spend plenty on video conferencing, or if your budget and your needs are limited, you can spend very little.