See Me, Hear Me: Videoconferencing You Can Afford

New Web conferencing services seem to pop up almost on a monthly basis these days, inspired perhaps by the global success of Skype on the one hand, but its failure to seize the business market opportunity on the other.

We take a look at two services that have in fact been around for a while—SightSpeed from SightSpeed Inc. and HearMe from AVM Software. Both are fundamentally voice-and-video-conferencing/calling services that also offer instant messaging (IM). HearMe adds screen-sharing capabilities. Sight Speed adds hosted video mail and in-call file sharing by e-mail.

SightSpeed, launched in 2003 and winner of several magazine awards, has two main offerings: SightSpeed Personal, a free “video chat” service, and the recently launched SightSpeed Business, a for-fee video conferencing service. (There is also a Plus version of Personal for $9.95 a month.)

Both services require downloading and installing a piece of client software on each person’s computer, although the company announced recently it was developing a no-download video chat “widget” for use at social networking sites, including Google’s yet-to-be-launched OpenSocial platform.

SightSpeed Business differs from Personal in both pricing and features. Personal delivers small pop-up ads that do not block the video windows and can be shut down immediately, and an ad panel at the bottom of the user interface that cannot be shut down. Business is free of advertising.

Additional features in Business include multi-party video conferencing (although Personal Plus does give you four-party video chatting), video call recording, in-call file sharing, multi-user licensing, management and reporting functions, and live technical support.

SightSpeed Business service is priced from $19.95 a month (or $189.95 if paid yearly) for a single seat, to $695.95 a month ($6,995.95 yearly) for a 50-user license.

Testing, Testing: Personal Plus Service
Download and installation of the client software was problem free. A wizard starts the first time you launch the program to help you set up camera, microphone and speakers. You select components from pull-down lists and let SightSpeed configure them automatically.

It worked flawlessly at one end of our test connection, not quite perfectly at the other, as we’ll see. It’s also possible to go into the Settings menu and reconfigure sound/video options and make fine adjustments.

The quarter-screen user interface is attractive and fairly intuitive, with a top-line menu bar and two layers of tabs for accessing the most-used functions—Video & Voice Calls, Video Mail & Blogs, Inbox, and Contacts in the top layer.

On launch, the program shows you the Video & Voice Calls tab with your webcam’s image taking up about a quarter of the space and a list of contacts beside it. When you make a two-way video call, your image shrinks to a thumbnail overlaid at the bottom of the other participant’s image.

The first time we tested a two-party video call, both ends could see the other’s video, but one could not hear any audio. This was resolved on subsequent attempts, possibly as a result of reconfiguring audio settings, but more likely because we shut down Skype before launching SightSpeed.

Launching a call is simple. Mousing over a contact’s name reveals icons for launching video, voice-only and chat sessions, and for recording calls. Audio quality is solid—clear at both ends, with good volume. It’s wideband audio, like Skype, but to our ears did not deliver quite as “three-dimensional” a sound as Skype at its best.

In the normal screen setting, video windows during a two-way call are a good size—about 1/16th of my 20-inch screen. (It’s possible to hide the rest of the interface and show only the video.) With properly adjusted cameras, images were clear enough and big enough to show body language and facial expressions.

The motion was fairly smooth too, although some frames were clearly being dropped to maintain reasonable synchronization between audio and video.

On three-party calls, video window size dropped to a quarter that of the video in two-way calls, and quality degraded slightly. Audio quality degraded more noticeably, with some pops and dropouts, though it was still acceptable.

(Note: We were using DSL connections with upwards of 2Mbps of throughput on both ends of the conference.)

There is an option to show the video display full-screen—all video windows are shown in a multi-party call. Video naturally becomes very pixilated and fuzzy, but it could be useful in some situations.

The video mail option simply automates the process of recording video with the webcam, then sending it to another SightSpeed user or to an e-mail box. The file-sharing feature automates e-mailing a document to another user. In multi-party calls, shared files—and chat messages—go out to all participants, so there’s no option to carry on a sidebar chat session while video conferencing.

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