Monday, December 31, 2007

new video conferencing technology

Here's a selection of videoconferencing ideas. I especially like the idea of the virtual dinner:

Links to this story:
Apple iChat:
Accenture's Virtual Dining:

Sunday, December 30, 2007

new Skype keyboard idea

Here's an idea to simplify using Skype video, which, let's face it - is not that simple for someone new to a PC.

From my observations, there is a lot of confusion when people use Skype for the first time. The layout is unduly complex, and the sequence of events is not clear - apart from the obvious ones of starting and finishing a call.

Older people especially who have not used a computer don't know which keys to use, and they have poor co-ordination using the mouse for the first week or more. The learning curve is steep.

My solution is a dedicated keyboard showing a minimum of simple buttons designed to be used in sequence from left to right.

  1. You press the Skype button to open the program or make the window live.
  2. You select your contact name with the up and down arrow buttons.
  3. You initiate the call with the green button.
  4. You stop the call with the red button.

A dedicated keyboard which eliminates pesky mouse movement and looks something like my layout would be the answer. The new keyboard could also be a part of a standard computer keyboard too.

Hope someone takes it further and runs with it.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

how to do a GoToMyPC photo transfer

I love GoToMyPC. It's a program you can install on your computer which allows you to remotely access your computer from any other internet-connected computer in the world. You use any browser for access, and pay a small monthly fee:

When I've been overseas I've been able to log in to my computer and answer email almost as if I was there in person. My own computer screen appears as a full-size window in the browser on the computer I am using. Move the mouse, and my own mouse thousands of miles away moves at the same time.

Which brings me to another handy application. My aged mother-in-law - who you've read about in previous posts - is not computer literate. I knew there would be a long learning curve, so I installed GoToMyPC on her computer. It has been very useful in correcting daily problems that would have required a 30 minute drive across to her place each time.

But it has also been very useful in another way.

I started a Photo Album folder on her machine and transferred family photos to it through Skype. She has been viewing them almost daily.

But today I found a better way to make the transfer. It's a simple drag and drop.

It works like this: I have GoToMyPC open on her PC displaying her photo album folder on one of my screens.

On another screen I have a folder with the photos (JPEGs) I want to transfer to her machine. I simply select all and drag them across to the GoToMyPC screen, and they transfer without any problem.

In the photo above you can see the GoToMyPC window for my mother-in-law's computer is open on my left hand screen. The files are transferring from my picture folder on the right hand screen.

This afternoon I transferred 16 JPEGs of about 500 KB (half a MB) each, and it took just a few minutes. I captioned each one beforehand so they are ready for her to view straight away.

You don't have to have separate screens of course... you can also do it by minimizing the two windows - the GoToMyPC window and your own folder - on one screen.

Friday, December 28, 2007

video calls on the move

Videoconferencing becomes more attractive when it replicates a real setting, or expands our boundaries of view.

For example, our daughter is visiting another country at the moment and used a wirelessly connected MacBook laptop to Skype us.

During the video chat she moved the laptop around the back of the house she was staying at so that we could see her surroundings. We saw the back yard, a friendly dog and the back lawn.

It is a huge improvement on a "talking head" scenario. Like most people I crave variety, so a background setting with a plain wall and a pot plant does nothing for me. I want to be involved, immersed.

In my office I sometimes use a 30 foot USB extension lead on my Logitech Quickcam Pro 9000 which allows me to take the viewer with me as I walk down the hallway. Of course wireless is better than a cord for mobility, and maybe that will come later in my experiments.

There's no denying the moving eyecam experience has impressed everyone as they virtually explore my environment along with me.

Here's a review of the Logitech QuickCam Pro 9000:

Thursday, December 27, 2007

the paperless office revisited

Yes, I'm declaring war on paper... again.

A year or two back I tried to morph completely to a paperless office.

But the idea was flawed from the start because I wasn't solving the problem - paper itself. I was finding ways to digitally store it (using the Fujitsu Scansnap Scanner with a lot of success), but doing nothing to stem the flow.

This picture shows the mail and paperwork I have on my desk from a week's worth of mail neglect. They include:

  • Money and checks from customers. In my websites I state that I don't accept payment in any other form except for credit cards, yet they still keep sending me money.
  • A refund check from a company returning my credit card deposit for goods that weren't available. They were unable to deposit the amount directly back to my credit card.
  • An account from my Mercedes shop, because they hadn't prepared it before I picked my car up. I always like to pay immediately.
  • Numerous bank account statements and payment advice.

All this paperwork could have been avoided if the companies and people involved were a lot more organized and businesslike.

So my task for 2008 is to eliminate as much paperwork from these sources as I possibly can. I guess that I can quit at least 90%. There will always be the exception, like the bill from my plumber that I'll need to pay manually. But already I have eliminated a lot of paper activity by automating my payments through internet banking. Of course these institutions are obliged to send the bill and receipt as well!

However, there will come a time when everything on paper is electronically satisfied. And I'm looking forward to that day.

Here's a look at the Fujitsu ScanSnap S510:

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

change of video view

While it's great to video chat to a person face-to-face, a bit of variety adds some interest. So I've taken to changing my backgrounds so my callers see a different view each day.

Each day I put the Logitech Quickcam Pro 9000 video camera on a different one of my four monitors. Because they are arranged in a curve on my desk, it means the webcam points at a different part of my office. So far the reaction has been good. Variety is the spice of life!

Monday, December 24, 2007

See Eye 2 Eye

For the past year I've used a home-built videoconferencing unit I developed that enabled me to make accurate eye contact with my video caller. I'll give more details in a later post, but I was intrigued to come across a similar system in principle shown here, at Bodelin.

It is designed to give true eye contact with your caller. The unit fits over the top of your screen, and with a couple of 45 degree mirrors reflects the image so that you are looking directly into the subject's eyes. I've ordered one just now, and will do a review when I get it.

The Bodelin website explains: "See Eye 2 Eye works like a periscope. When you place this patented device over your webcam, a set of mirrors beams the picture of the person you're talking to onto our optical grade beam-splitting glass, which sits in front of your webcam lens. You can see the reflected image while the other party isn't even aware you're looking at anything but your webcam."

One of my questions about its usefulness is the small image size. It looks like you need to reduce the caller's image to 320 x 240 on your screen to get the picture to fit the unit.

That's too small for me - I like to increase a video to full screen (19") for full immersion. A small picture is no better than a videophone like the Ojo with all its size and quality restrictions.

Some people will prefer small talking heads, but I believe the true immersive experience involves a varied background and extended views. For example, when I pick my Logitech Quickcam 9000 off the top of the screen and turn it round my home office, the viewer is always excited to see the larger view. This is the ultimate experience for improved realism and interactivity.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

why does business need to videoconference?

I can see the usefulness of videoconferencing for family and friends. But I'm not really sure it's needed in business.

How important is it to see the expression on someone's face when you're talking to them in a business or selling situation? Would it make or break the sale? As a boss, would you be more inclined to promote someone if you could see their demeanor (and acne) rather than all the ticks in the right boxes on their CV? I think that business video calling is hugely overrated, and its general uselessness could be part of the problem for videoconferencing not taking off as quickly as predicted.

Recruitment and executive placement will possibly promote the business need, but it is only a very small part of the business landscape.

But connecting visually with family and friends is really where the future of videoconferencing is, whether from the desktop, or a commercial service like Amigo Live (pictured above). There's a huge advantage in seeing familiar people on a regular basis, especially when they're overseas or a great distance away.

Everyone knows the advantage of seeing family they haven't talked to for a while. This morning my mother-in-law - the same 93-year-old I've talked about in an earlier post - Skyped my mother in Britain, half the world away. By all accounts it was a tremendous bonding experience, since my mother-in-law hadn't seen her since visiting the year before. That's the real value of videoconferencing, and it's where the most gain will be made.

I can see that in another decade all the dedicated high definition and expensive business videoconferencing rooms will be lying unused, while video calls will carry on from desktop to desktop. Email and telephoning will rule, as usual.

Skype High Quality video calling

I've been using a Skype High Quality video calling setup for the last week, and the results are spectactular.

Here's an excellent and detailed review on the process by Skype Journal blogger Jim Courtney. I'll give my personal experiences and more detail in later posts.

a glimpse of the videocall future

What will videoconferencing look like in a few years? Here's one scenario I've thought about...

I'd like to predict that in the near future we'll all have a remotely controlled robot in all our homes that we can use as our own persona, or body double. When it's placed in a remote location - a friend's house for example - we'll log into it remotely through the net and our own video face will show on the remote robot.

We will be linked to it. It will act as "us" on our command, moving about as we would in the remote surroundings. It will send images and sound back to us in a 3D process that would enable us to be there virtually.

We could move though the host room and sit by the grandchildren, perhaps reading a story to them (providing they are used to the concept and won't get freaked out!) Or we could sit on the sofa, or across the dinner table and join in the family conversation.

We could even hire one located at seminars, museums or trade shows and wander the floor looking around and interacting with the staff. This concept would make videoconferencing useful. It's being done already at a simpler level.

iRobot are doing this with their ConnectR, a virtual visiting robot due out 2008: has the Giraffe:

A primitive-looking robot called IvanAnywhere is a working solution:

UCLA Medical Center has had a robotic doctor since 2005:

Honda have their ASIMO robots jogging along at 6 km/hr and serving tea. You can imagine how effective this could be as a 2-way interface:

It's only a matter of years before this concept accelerates to a sophisticated level.
"By the end of 2010, we'd like to see these robots working at every street corner of the city," said Tomohiko Kawanabe of Honda's Fundamental Technology Research Center.

At the moment these processes are very primitive. The experience of being there would have to be developed further for it to work, but I'm sure that current research will have that done within the next five to ten years.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

why we still don't like videoconferencing

Videoconferencing is not new. Global business has been using videoconferencing for the last 15 years. And in the last couple of years programs like Skype have made huge strides in increasing quality and ease of use for personal users with their High Quality benchmark introduced this month.

Videoconferencing is mainstream. Today at 3.15pm I saw Skype has 5,153,338 people online at one time. It's been as high as 10 million, which shows how a large number of people are accepting and using this type of technology.

But only about 50% of my friends and family enjoy videoconferencing, and this percentage seems to be typical. The main barriers seem to be reasons they won't readily admit to:

- They can't multitask while having a video call. Most telephone users will do something else while they are talking, like typing or paperwork. I've sometimes done that myself. One member of our family readily admits that she enjoys looking out of the window during a phone conversation. She can't do that with a video call however, and feels obliged to remain looking interested during the talk. While that's not difficult if you like the person (or they are related!) but it's hard work to keep up the pretense if you have to be there.

- They don't want to look like a slob, either personally or their home. Most people want to get spruced up for a video chat. Why? I don’t know, since many will invite people into their messy house and greet them in old clothes. But the 50% will give this reason as an excuse for not wanting to use video. It's a bit like the early days of the automobile, where everybody dressed in their Sunday best to go out motoring. Now we just drive around in a T-shirt and jeans. Dress is a barrier that has to be overcome.

- Videoconferencing is just not real enough. That's because a generation of one-way television viewers find it difficult to accept, subliminally, that the screen will interact and talk back to them. It's a mental expectation that the screen is uni-directional, as if we're not talking to a person but just to a familiar image on TV that is not quite real. A real-world example... our grandchildren can sometimes be slightly rude when they Skype us... even though they wouldn't dream of doing it to our face. There is a removal of reality because subliminally they believe they are talking to a representation rather than a real person.

- There's no eye contact. We're all familiar with the standard webcam view... the person on screen studying our chin - and only occasionally looking up if they are aware of good webcam etiquette. We soon get used to the downward view of their profile. But the difference true eye contact makes is remarkable. Most people can discern an eye contact variance of less than 5° at around 20 feet. That means they will be able to tell when a person is standing 20 feet away and looking past your shoulder. The small deflection is immediately obvious. Wow. The human brain is massively sophisticated in discerning these slight differences. So why do we put up with it?

What's the answer? How can we get people to enjoy videoconferencing? I've got some ideas which I've used, and which I'll expand on later.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

recap on the digital life

I'm older than many net users. Next year I will celebrate my 60th birthday. But despite those six decades, I still feel 21 inside with all the excitement and promise of flying cars, wall-to-wall videoconferencing and a no-work society still welling up inside me from time to time.

In a way I've already accomplished those many childhood dreams. I work alone, digitally - almost on autopilot - with the world as my market, without leaving my desk. I'm dictating this post through Dragon Naturally Speaking and sharing my work on four 19" screens (pic).

With the click of a button I can access most of my family in far-flung parts of the world, and talk to them face to face.

Another click or two and I can buy products from any part of the world, and have them sent anywhere. It's an incredible existence, far surpassing anything I had ever dreamed of.

As an example, a week ago I bought a new webcam for my brother who lives in Britain - a Logitech Quickcam 9000 for high quality video through Skype. I already had one.

Although it was a Christmas present for him, it was really for me... because I benefited most from the better quality video. But the exciting part of this giftgiving was that I was able to purchase it from in UK, and have it delivered to his doorstep in a matter of two or three days.

Today, this is commonplace. Kids take the net for granted. A few days ago my grandson, aged 11, added another contact to his Skype list with the help of my brief instructions. Computers weren't even invented when I was 11, for goodness sake, yet here he was deftly managing this overly complex business we call the internet and computer.

But there's a lot wrong still with our digital world. Design and function are primitive. Last week I gave an old computer to my mother in-law, who's 93, so we can video chat. That's her setup on the right.

She has done remarkably well in working it out with my brief instruction - considering she had never used a computer in her life. But there were a lot of physical problems to overcome like controlling the mouse and understanding what a window is. Still, we've gone far enough to make and receive Skype calls, and no doubt she will start building her list of contacts in time as I did.

So the internet and computing at any level is still fiendishly complex. And until you tutor someone who has never worked on a computer do you realize how much underlying knowledge you have built up over the years.

My ambition is to make our digital life as simple as possible. At the moment I'm doing this awkwardly with complex workarounds like hotkeys and automatic mouse & keyboard sequences because there isn't a better way.

But it shouldn't be like this. More on this later.