Mac Lab Report

iChat with iSight Makes for Pretty Good Video Conferencing

- 2005.12.14

Having tried to do video chat years ago with the old CU-SeeMe software on a pre-G3 computer, I really appreciated the experience I just had with iChat AV and my family while away on a road trip.

The old software, which used an old Connectix black and white "golf ball" camera connected to the Mac's serial port, was slow and jerky, and I never actually got to the point that I used it for anything other than watching NASA TV.

I don't know how many of you are like me, but sometimes I try out new things just to say I know how to do them, but then - not having any particular use for it - I don't do it again. Other than "proof of concept" tests and messing around a little with some students in a lab, I never really used CU-SeeMe consistently.

Video iChat Using iSight

Now I find myself with two G4 PowerBooks (one for my wife) and two iSight video cameras, so I just had to try it out.

Just before my recent trip to Nashville, I had my wife hook up her camera and fire up iChat AV so we could initiate a chat. I have chatted with her occasionally using iChat before, so she already had her software set up and an account based on her .mac account all ready to go.

Anticipating I would need to explain how to do the chat, I fiddled around with the chat window and started typing instructions. Before I could finish the first sentence, the window popped open asking me to join her video chat, which is both an indication of how easy it is to use and how smart she is (are you reading this, honeybunches?).

Anyway, aside from a couple of minor problems, it worked beautifully, and my kids were fascinated enough to keep asking me to watch them show off doing silly things because they could see my reaction.

It took me a little while to figure out how to resize the inset window so my picture didn't obscure the background so much ("Just put your mouse over it and drag, dear," she said), and I had to restart once because the connection was pretty poor in the hotel. We were using an old AirPort wireless base station at home on her end, and presumably standard ethernet at the hotel.

A Few Drawbacks

We were unable to make the image smooth over the long distance connection until I limited the bandwidth to 500 Kb/s, which still left me with smooth video and audio quality equivalent to a slightly mushy speakerphone - like on a cell phone in speaker phone mode.

It was perfectly understandable. We could talk simultaneously and still be heard. Loud noises made audible "echoes" as the sound from the speaker fed back to the microphone, but under normal conversation this was not a real problem. Even though there was an internet-induced fraction of a second delay between transmission and reception, similar to what happens to foreign correspondents on network news (but not as bad), it didn't interfere with normal conversation.

Screen grabs are available for when your kids are being particularly cute. There's no way to record video that I could discover, but that might take a bit more processor power than is available. I recommend you quit any CPU intensive software before starting a video chat, especially Classic, which seems to hog my CPU quite a bit even when idle.

Anyway, lots of you have tried this, and some of you haven't. The point of this little missive (and I do have a point) is that the quality of the connection is good enough that this is now going to be an official part of my travel kit, and I'm going to do it more often than just trying it out.

I wish my sisters used Macs, but even if they did they don't have broadband, so I guess I'll have to continue using Yahoo Messenger with them (YM does, by the way, support iSight cameras, so that works, if not as well as with iChat.)

A Few More Drawbacks

There are a couple of things that could be improved. Bonjour connections are only useful within the same subnet, so if you don't have a .mac or AIM account and you're in different parts of the building's network, you can't use iChat.

I wanted to use it to communicate with my planetarium students working in a storeroom while I was in my classroom as a test, but those areas are on different subnets, and the district blocks all chat software data for obvious reasons.

I've put in a request for them to open a port for me to use, but we all know how those things go. Eventually that'll be a moot point, as we're supposed to get a high-speed Internet 2 video conferencing system sometime in the next year as part of a project we're participating in, but it would still be nice to be able to buzz home and say hi to my kids when I have to work late (which is more often than I'd like).

While in the hotel I got an "AOL network is busy try again later" error several times, but I couldn't tell if that was due to my slow Internet connection or some long-term problem with AOL chat.

I hope (for AOL's sake) it isn't the AOL chat servers that's the problem, because as the dialup population of the world shrinks, AOL has to find some way to keep bringing new users into the fold. As much as we experienced users ridicule AOL users, many of us started out there (myself included), and it is still probably the easiest on-ramp to the information superhighway.

Now there's a dated term I bet you haven't read in a while!

Enjoy your nostalgia as iChat drags you into the future we first saw in 2001: A Space Odyssey all those years ago when Dr. Floyd called home to iChat with his daughter. The only thing Kubrick got wrong in that scene is that the call turns out to be a lot cheaper than anyone imagined.

Link: CU-SeeMe

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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