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Tutorial: Adding free videoconferencing to chats

Zack Stern | Aug. 14, 2008
The article explains how to get started, and also offers some helpful tips for getting the most out of your video chats.

TokBox also lets you create recorded video messages that you can send to family members, colleagues, and friends. In the main TokBox page after logging in, just click Video Mail. Click Record Message, enter an e-mail address, add a text message below if you want to, and click Send. The recipient will get an e-mail with a private link back to your video file, which is hosted on TokBox's Web site.

Share documents and desktops

In a videoconference, you could aim a camera at a whiteboard to show off written meeting notes, but you can just as easily pass around digital files instead. In most chat clients, you can drag a file to the chat window to send it, or right-click a contact's name and choose the option to send a file.

Desktop sharing takes collaboration further, permitting a remote person to view or control a computer. Essentially, you set up a virtual network computing (VNC) connection. Such an arrangement works well for troubleshooting a parent's distant laptop, but it's also appropriate for showing a PowerPoint or Excel presentation to a group.

Desktop-sharing support varies greatly on different video and chat clients. For instance, it isn't available on the standard AIM client for PCs, but it is included in the more business-oriented AIM Pro. I like the pro version better than the consumer AIM anyway, because it's almost ad-free. Just right-click an AIM Pro buddy, and choose New Desktop Share. Click Continue, and the remote computer can see your desktop. (Bear in mind that your buddy will also need to be running AIM Pro to receive your file.)

On a Mac with OS X 10.5 and iChat, click a buddy, and then click the icon in the bottom right to offer your screen to the remote contact or to ask to control their computer. When you're in control, the remote computer replaces your main screen, but a small representation of your own system lets you toggle between the views. Click the X button to end the remote-control session.

Google Docs is another collaboration favorite that works independently of your videoconferencing software. You run your chat software as you normally would, and log in to this service at the same time. Open one of your documents, and click the Share tab on the right. You can then invite others to collaborate or to view the document, and they can alter it or look at it at the same time.

Use a Videophone, Skip the PC

For permanent videoconference setups, consider avoiding the PC altogether. Dedicated videophone devices can be great for always-ready office installations. Unfortunately, such stand-alone devices tend to work only with their own kind, so usually you'll need to buy at least two of the same device if you want to talk to anyone. As fate would have it, though, some manufacturers now offer PC-based software that can connect Webcam users to dedicated videophones.


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