A VideoPhone for the Rest of Us

By Ronald Pacchiano | Posted October 29, 2003

One of the coolest things I recall from childhood was watching TV shows like Star Trek and the Jetsons, and being completely awed at the concept of communicating with people over a videophone. The concept really intrigued me, and I just couldn't wait for the day when I too would be able to do that.

Thirty years later ... and I'm still waiting. At long last, however, there might be some hope. D-Link Technologies recently introduced what I feel is the first product to truly deliver on the videophone concept. They have invested a good deal of time and energy studying the problems associated with them and have come up with some innovative solutions to deal with them. The result of all this effort is the DVC-1000 i2eye VideoPhone.

The Big Picture
From the beginning, the DVC-1000 i2eye VideoPhone was conceived to correct many of the shortcomings of past videophones. Earlier efforts were handicapped by small LCD screens and slow analog phone lines. Unlike those earlier efforts, the i2eye's communication medium is your high-speed Internet connection, and it displays the person you're speaking with on your regular television. So if you have a big-screen TV, you're going to get a pretty large picture of the person you're talking to.

The camera supports a maximum resolution of up to 352x288 at 30 frames per second (fps), although this figure may vary according to available bandwidth and so forth. It connects to a TV using standard RCA cables and comes with a full-featured remote control. The product was designed to work independently of a PC, so none is required (although you can certainly use the i2eye with a computer). It is also quite small — about the same size and weight of a small router.

The DVC-1000 conforms to the ITU H.323 and H.263 communication standards, so it can communicate with software packages like Microsoft's NetMeeting. By taking advantage of IP-based protocols and advanced video and audio compression techniques, D-Link claims the i2eye can stream live audio and video at up to 30 frames per second across the Internet.

In order to efficiently compress/decompress audio and video, the DVC-1000 needed power and thus was equipped with an ARM-9 ASIC Communication Processor. It has a built-in 10 Mbps network interface and is firmware upgradeable, so it can be upgraded automatically online, making it easy for D-Link to correct problems and add features.

The unit works just like a typical speaker phone, but there is also an option to use a telephone as a handset for communication. It should be noted that the i2eye cannot be used to place regular phone calls; rather, it can only be used with the videophone itself.

Essential Ingredients
The DVC-1000 has some pretty modest requirements. For starters, you must have a broadband Internet connection — either a cable modem, DSL line, high-speed wireless, or a high-speed satellite link. Next, you'll need to connect it to a device with RCA inputs capable of receiving a video signal — in other words, a television. If you have a TV that for some reason doesn't have any RCA connectors available, you could connect it to a VCR or receiver, or go out and buy a low cost A/V Switch box.

The DVC can also be connected to a PC with a video capture card, but this is not recommended. This is due to the unit being designed to work from the same spot as your TV, and therefore it has an optimal focal distance of 5- to 10-feet. As a result, you may have some issues with clarity and resolution if you try placing the DVC on top of your monitor.

Although not required, I would highly recommend using a telephone as well. Audio quality is far better when using a telephone handset as opposed to using the unit's built-in speakerphone. Any phone will work — wired or wireless, digital or analog. Another benefit of using the handset is that it allows the DVC to function just like a normal telephone. Calls can be placed using the telephone's keypad instead of the onscreen menu system, and it will also ring when a call comes in.

And last but certainly not least, in order for the DVC-1000 to work properly on your network, you must have a public Internet protocol (IP) address. Most Cable and DSL services automatically provide you with one; however, some ISPs may give out private IPs and then network address translation (NAT) them to the Internet. If your ISP does not provide a public IP address, you'll have to ask them to provide you with one. (AOL's High-Speed Cable Modem Service would be one such example.)

Up and Running
Setting up and using the DVC-1000 is very simple, and you can probably have it up and running in about 10 minutes. Before beginning your installation, though, spend a few minutes planning how you're going to connect the DVC to your network and television. Make sure all the cables are going to be long enough and decide whether or not you want to use a telephone handset with it. All of the connection points on the unit are clearly labeled and color coded, so you shouldn't have any trouble getting everything connected correctly.

Now that everything is connected, it's time to talk about the networking specifics required by the device. In order for your videophone to receive calls, it needs to be accessible from outside of your network. Now, working under the assumption that your Internet connection is being shared and protected by a router/firewall, you have two options. The first option is to enter the IP address assigned to the DVC-1000 into the DMZ field on your router. This is probably the fastest and easiest way to get things up and running. The second and more secure method would be to open up the ports the unit needs access to and forward them through the router/firewall.

The DVC-1000 makes use of the following ports: port 1720 for TCP and ports 15328 — 15333 for UDP. If you don't know how to do this, refer to the user manual that came with your firewall / router. To make things easier, if you use the DVC-1000 with either a D-Link DI-614+ or DI-604 router, a firmware upgrade is available that adds support for the DVC-1000 directly to the router. So to configure it, you simply need to activate it and indicate the IP address the DVC is using.

With everything now connected, it's time to turn our attention to configuring the DVC itself. When you first turn it on you'll be greeted by the welcome screen. Since this a standalone device, you'll need to use the remote control to perform the entire configuration. Next you'll be asked to enter such things as your name and the phone number you want assigned to it. I'd recommend using your home phone number. You can make one up, but using the one you already have will make it easier for people to remember.

This information gets stored on a lightweight directory access protocol LDAP) server which is maintained by D-Link, so when someone wants to call your videophone, they enter your phone number into their DVC, which then connects to D-Link's LDAP server, resolves the number with your public IP address, and connects your call.

Now we need to configure your network settings. Since we're using a router/firewall that automatically assigns the IP address, gateway, and subnet mask to any device that requests it, all we need to do is check the box that states "Obtain an IP address automatically."

Now you need to tell the DVC the speed of your Internet connection. You have the option to select from DSL, Cable, or T1. Each option will give you a different default send/receive speed. Before setting these I would highly recommend first benchmarking your network's performance using the speed test at DSLReports.com.

If you attempt to set your speeds too high you WILL experience poor performance. If you can't benchmark it beforehand, I suggest you err on the side of caution — start with the slowest settings first and then increase them gradually. Once that's completed, the final setup screen will ask you to reboot the videophone to apply the configuration you have just set.

Test Drive
To test the i2eye we configured two units — one at my site and one at the home of an associate of mine. I have a Time Warner cable modem and she is using Earthlink DSL. Getting both units configured was quick, simple, and straightforward. Our video speeds hovered between 15 to 25 frames per second using the camera's maximum 352x288 resolution, and we suffered no packet loss. A built-in diagnostic utility displays frame rate and packet loss right on screen.

Image quality was very good and was only compromised if there was excess movement. If you're just sitting there moving your hands while speaking, it isn't very noticeable, but if you want to dance for someone in front of your videophone (not that we chose to do that), the images can get a bit pixilated.

We were both impressed with the DVC's audio quality. The DVC-1000 provided a phone-like experience that was definitely superior to the software alternatives I've tried in the past. The DVC-1000 effectively managed full-duplex communications, which means we could both talk at the same time. The built-in audio quality of the speaker phone was no better (and really not much worse) then any other speaker phone I've used.

Still, for some reason I always felt that if I wasn't speaking particularly loud (borderline on shouting), the person I was speaking with would have trouble hearing me. When using the telephone handset, however, calls were very easy to make and comfortable to use, and quality would be comparable to that of a good cell phone.

We did have a few problems with the i2eye. Trying to keep yourself in the frame is a bit tough because the image you see of yourself onscreen is smaller then the image the caller is looking at. So while you might think that you're out of frame, you really aren't. Additionally, the manual focus is difficult to use since you'll have to constantly run from the television to your seat to get the focus right. An auto focus feature would have been nice.

My biggest concern with the DVC-1000 has to do with stability. When the unit was left on and unused for a time, it would sometimes become unresponsive, forcing a reboot of the unit. Also, light sensitivity of the camera lens did become an issue at times. If the room was too dark, it became difficult to see the person clearly. Attempts to toggle auto-contrast did not affect light sensitivity. If you make sure the room is bright before beginning a conversation, this shouldn't be an issue.

The DVC-1000 came packaged with everything necessary to get it up and running, including a comprehensive manual, a getting started guide, the remote control, a CAT 5 Ethernet cable, the AC power adapter, and a RCA A/V compatible cable. The only disappointing thing about the supplied equipment is that the AC power adapter and the RCA A/V cables are a bit on the short side. So if your TV is mounted in a large entertainment center or you have a big-screen TV, you may run into a few problems trying to get everything connected.

With a street price of about $180, the D-Link i2eye VideoPhone is not only one of the least expensive videophones, but also the best performing one I have ever seen. In spite of a few shortcomings, it is nevertheless a solid product with lots of potential. Video frame rates were quite good, and when the unit is combined with a telephone handset, it is remarkably easy to use. Setting up the DVC-1000 will be a relatively simple task for most people, although a non-technical person may have some difficulties.

So will the D-Link i2eye VideoPhone be remembered as the start of the videophone revolution? I guess only time will tell. However, D-Link has managed to deliver on everything they set out to, and finally, at long last, the potential of videophones may be realized.

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com.

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