For the past year and a half, my wife and I got into the habit of video chatting with our son and grandson in Florida, thoroughly enjoying watching the toddler try to crawl through the screen of our laptop.
Video calling has been around awhile. Companies have been employing video conferencing and online video chatting for years. Then skype made it all financially possible for the rest of us to talk to a face through our computers.
And now with the new version of the iPhone and other mobile devices, more of us are able to look at to whom we're talking on a regular basis. It's still probably not a wise thing to do while you're driving, even if you have the speaker on. In fact, there are times when I prefer to just talk and listen without having to react visibly to the other person.
Still, video calling has started to become a way of life for millions of Americans either on their computers or over a mobile phone or through their big screen TVs.
According to a recent survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, one in five Internet users has tried video chat. And this technology barely existed just five years ago. Plus, most computer-based video calling is free.
Analysts are predicting a steep growth in video chatting, noting new developments such as video voice-mail messages, the ability to snap still-life photos during a video conversation and calls that can be received on your web-enabled 60-inch flat-screen TV.
Skype is still the dominant force in the video chat industry with Google, Apple, Yahoo and a host of smaller competitors biting off chunks. The mobile piece of the business alone totals nearly $100 million.
Right now, your choices are through your computer, your cell phone or your television. If you use a computer, you'll need a service like Skype, which also requires software or an AOL account. The Skype video chat is free and voice calls run from a few cents to more than $2 a minute. Skype is the only service that lets up to five people chat together via videoâ€”and view each other in high-definition. You would need a special hi-def webcam however. A less well-known service is ooVoo.
If you use a computer, you'll need a service like Skype, which also requires software or an AOL account. The Skype video chat is free and voice calls run from a few cents to more than $2 a minute. Skype is the only service that lets up to five people chat together via videoâ€”and view each other in high-definition. You would need a special hi-def webcam however. A less well-known service is ooVoo.
Then there's iChat, which requires an account with either AOL Instant Messenger, which is free, or Apple's MobileMe, which costs $99 a year, plus software. iChat makes free video calls to computers. Text messages may incur charges. Apple's entry into the field doesn't let users make calls in high-def yet, but four people can chat together on a single call and share photos on the computer screen at the same time.
A recent entry to computer video chatting is Google voice and video chat. It requires a Gmail account and software, but the video chatting is free. Voice calls cost between 2 cents and $1 a minute. Google's video-chat function lets you e-mail and instant-message during your chat session. But a spokesperson says video calls work with only one person at a time and that the service isn't yet available in high-def.
The cost of webcams ranges from as little as $15 to $140 for high end high-def cameras. They also come built into many laptops.
You won't need a webcam for conducting video chats over cell phones, which have their cameras already built in. Just keep in mind that video calls tend to cost more than just voice calls unless you use an Internet hot spot. You can buy an app such as Fring, which provides free video chatting over Wi-Fi but also 3G. Unless your data plan is unlimited, stick to Wi-Fi hot spots to avoid carrier overage fees.
The most recent method of video chatting is over your big flat screen television but you need a web-enabled set. Skype has rolled out a service on a handful of Web-enabled TVs allowing callers to dial other Skype customers through their TV's remote, then talk through a supersized webcam that lets people sit as far as 12 feet away.
While chatting is free, and connections to callers on the other line is via not only the TV but also the computer but the technology is being built into newer sets from Samsung and Panasonic sets that run $1,200 to $7,000. You can find cheaper models from Vizio. You also need a special webcam will cost at least $150, since regular models can't plug into a television.
To save money, you could modify your existing TV by hooking it to a computer as if it was an external monitor and then use Skype to make the video call.