The Picturephone has arrived

Almost as good as being there: Apple’s iChat AV and iSight deliver powerful audiovisual communication of the fly

As a youngster I visited the Bell Telephone Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair and saw the AT&T Picturephone. A photo from that era shows a boy about the age I was then. I know just what he was thinking: "When will this get real?" The answer would have surprised us both. Although the moon landing would happen just five years later, casual and routine use of the Picturephone was 40 years away. So last summer's arrival of Apple's killer iChat AV/iSight combo was a bit of an anticlimax. But the implications are starting to sink in.

Recently Antarctica Systems founder and CTO Tim Bray realized that if he hooked up a spare Mac and digital video camera in his home, his Mac notebook could call it from any Wi-Fi hotspot in the world. He summed up on his Weblog: "Costly and voice-only, or free with a picture. I think this is what an inflection point smells like." True, although I'm tempted to say, "Shh! Don't wake the sleeping regulatory giant!"

When I wrote about mobile Webcasting in the Nov. 26 issue, my editor, Eric Knorr, liked the column but wondered about its relevance to enterprise IT. Bray's revelation is part of the answer. (And if, like me, you would often rather be heard than seen, note that iChat AV turns any OS X-capable Mac into a credible VoIP [voice over IP] device.) We can all relate to lower phone bills. But looking back on 2003 I see an even bigger story unfolding. At the XML 2003 conference, I used my iSight in a number of interesting ways. I augmented my Weblog with video quotes. I captured entire sessions (plus a few spontaneous meetings) for later review. I didn't stream out live Webcasts from sessions, but could have done that using the technique described in the earlier column. Watch for interesting disruptions in 2004 as Webcam-equipped notebook computers invade Wi-Fi-friendly conferences.

Spontaneity is the key driver. The current blog craze is fueled by sudden awareness that Web authoring isn't just for anointed content masters, it's something anyone can easily do. What blogging did for text and images, audiovisual technologies are about to do for voice and video. Nor is this just about Apple's hip gear. Here's a mainstream Windows-oriented example. A friend works at a college that has standardized on Outlook but that hasn't yet put an anti-spam solution in place. I wanted to demonstrate the SpamBayes plug-in for the school, and I realized I ought to try the screen-capture feature of the free Windows Media Encoder 9.

The results were stunning. I set up a new session, pointed it at Outlook's main window, and began encoding. Then I talked through a demonstration of SpamBayes' configuration manager, its Delete and Recover toolbar buttons, and my techniques for integrating SpamBayes with Outlook's filtering and foldering. Along the way I pointed with the cursor to items of interest, opened and closed dialog boxes, and drove the Outlook interface as I normally do. The resulting six-minute video had the same format as my Outlook window, which happened to be about 750-by-620. The file came in at just under 3MB. I FTP'd it to my Website and, because I'd chosen the progressive-download option, playback was immediate. It was also perfectly readable and audible. Elapsed time from the moment I thought of trying this to the end of playback: about 25 minutes. Next time it'll take 10. Why don't more people do this? Because it wasn’t this easy before. Now, it is.


Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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