Why settle for just typing messages to friends and family when you can see them too? With an Instant Messaging program (IM) and a webcam, you can enhance your online communication with real-time images. There's no need to type a when you can flash your buddy a smile.
A webcam is an inexpensive video camera that connects to your computer. It's designed to send a stream of video images over the Net. If you shop around, you can buy a decent color camera for under $50 USD.
The easiest way to become webcam-enabled is to use an instant messaging service that supports webcams, such as Windows Live Messenger or Yahoo! Messenger. If you don't already have the software you can download it for free.
For instructions, read our article on Instant Messaging. To communicate with someone, he or she may have to use the same service as you, since some IM services aren't compatible. (Fortunately, Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger users can now communicate with each other.) Also, sending and receiving video images requires a great deal of data transfer; you'll get the best results with a broadband connection.
Typically the camera plugs into your computer's USB port, but before you do this, read the support information of the IM service you plan to use. Click the logos below for details:
Once your webcam is plugged in, open your IM program. Depending on the service you use, you may have to click a webcam button to invite someone to view your camera. Once the webcam is enabled, an image appears in a small window on your screen.
You can also record video messages and e-mail them to friends and family. Open the software that came with the camera. Make sure you look your best, then click the Start or Record button. When you're done, click Stop. Most software allows you to replay your message. If you're happy, name the video file and save it. Next, attach it to an e-mail message. The recipient shouldn't need any special software to play your video clip.
Lighting the Way
While the price is right, don't expect high resolution images from these diminutive cameras. Other than placement of the camera, webcams don't offer much control; exposure is automatic and many have no focus or zoom. But you can improve the image quality with proper lighting. Make sure that you are not backlit–no bright light source behind you–or you will appear as a silhouette. For ideal lighting, place one light (perhaps a lamp with a 100 watt bulb) to one side of you and behind the camera; on the other side, place a lamp with a 60 watt bulb. This arrangement is flattering and eliminates strong shadows on your face. Now you're ready to face the Web.
Last update: Jan 20, 2010