A video phone with lips in sync

Plugged In

May 24, 2007|By Mike Himowitz | Mike Himowitz,Sun Columnist

One thing I've learned over the years is not to give up when some new gadget or technology doesn't work the first time.

Heck, I've been tinkering with videoconferencing for more than a decade, waiting for something resembling a telephone conversation with a moving picture of a person who actually sounded like he was talking to me.

A few weeks ago, I tried a new Microsoft LifeCam using the company's own video chat software, as well as the popular Skype Internet phone service. It was a bummer - grainy images and audio that always lagged behind the image on the screen.

After describing that misadventure, I heard from the operators of a new video chat service called ooVoo.com, who absolutely promised that they could make the technology work.

I get these me-too calls every time I review a product, but ooVoo surprised me - it actually produced an acceptable video phone call.

The site doesn't officially open until June 11, but the public beta version is available. It has a few rough edges, but overall, ooVoo is friendly, elegant and easy to use.

Its creators see ooVoo as a cross between MySpace and YouTube - a social networking and chat site with a heavy video component.

How they expect to make money on it isn't clear. Advertising is one potential model; fee-based premium services is another. But for now, there's no reason to turn down a freebie that works.

If you've used instant messaging or social networking software before, you'll have no trouble understanding ooVoo.

After downloading and installing ooVoo's software and persuading my son and a colleague to do the same, I set up a list of contacts.

Then we started calling one another.

Lo and behold, in two-way sessions we could see and hear each other in small windows on the screen with voices and lips that actually synchronized.

In fact, ooVoo claims it can work with Internet connections as slow as 128 kilobits per second. The service worked well with new Microsoft VX 3000 Webcams, and just as well when I called a colleague with a Webcam so old it was autographed by Matthew Brady.

Move slowly

The experience wasn't perfect, of course. Sudden movement resulted in pixelated video images - producing some very strange sci-fi effects. But the audio synchronization never lagged, and that's the key to a good conversation.

One of ooVoo's bragging points is a feature that assembles conferences with up to six people. That's not as important to me as chatting clearly with one other person, and that's a good thing, because ooVoo's video and audio deteriorated noticeably when we set up a three-way conversation.

Still, the service comes closer to seamless real videoconferencing than anything I've tried so far.

If you have a Webcam, give it a try. If you've been thinking about buying one, this is as good an excuse as any.

To use the service, you'll need a PC running Microsoft Windows. A company spokeswoman said a Mac version would be ready about the time the site officially goes live.

Department of Amazing Medical News: I doubt that many of you stay up late worrying about this problem, but here's the latest on the unintended consequences of technology:

A new British study says that people with pacemakers or defibrillators can safely use iPods and other portable music players as long as they keep the player at least 6 inches from whatever medical device they're plugged into.

This means pacemaker users shouldn't stash their iPods in their shirt pockets, according to the United Kingdom's Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. The alternative: Clip the player to your belt or slip it into a trouser pocket.

This became an issue a few weeks ago when a Michigan high school student - backed by some high-powered researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan - caused a ruckus at a cardiologists' convention with a report that iPods and other gadgets can cause three types of interference that could conceivably affect the normal operation of a pacemaker or defibrillator.

No adults were harmed during the study, which involved holding the iPod 2 inches from the chests of 83 patients with pacemakers while a variety of equipment monitored the electrical energy emanating from the devices. Nor are there any reports of pacemakers failing as the result of iPod listening.

The average age of the study participants was 76, which is not the prime demographic for portable music players today. But it's certainly something today's iPod-carrying boomers should remember if they ever join the pacemaker crowd.

Getting around

If you wonder why Google always seems to be a little bit ahead of the competition, try this:

Surf to maps.yahoo.com, or mapquest.com and ask for driving directions between Baltimore, Md., and Paris, France. Yes, I know, this doesn't make sense, but do it anyway.

You'll notice that Yahoo responds quite precisely:

"Driving directions cannot be determined between these locations."

MapQuest politely asks you to pick another destination.

Now try maps.google.com.

Instead of giving up, Google routes you from Baltimore to Long Wharf in Boston, where it instructs: "Swim across the Atlantic Ocean 3,462 miles." The automobile trail picks up again in LeHavre, with detailed driving directions to the City of Light.

You won't have to try many other trips before you realize this is a joke: No matter what destination you choose in Europe (or even Britain), you always swim from Boston to LeHavre first.

As we all know, this is not always the shortest distance between two points.

Still, it's a pleasure to see a twisted sense of humor at work.

mike.himowitz@baltsun.com

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