How to make video chatting less painful

It wasn't until my mother had a grandson that she really began to get into video chat. We had used Skype occasionally when I needed to view her computer screen to troubleshoot something, but when the opportunity arose for her to"see" my son despite living 200 miles away, Skype went from being a convenience to a necessity.

For his part, my son seems to see little difference between Grandma on the computer and Grandma in person. My guess is this has more to do with him not having the many years of face-to-face interaction with human beings we adults have had, which means he doesn't care in the slightest how awkward the whole thing actually is.

I refer, of course, to the fact that while video chat has definitely gone mainstream thanks to services such as Skype, Apple's FaceTime and Google Talk, the technology still is in its infancy. Jittery, pixilated calls, awkward pauses because of the lag, audio problems ("I can hear you, but can you hear me?") -- you name it, I've experienced it.

In theory, most people with a broadband connection should have enough juice for a quality video call. (Skype's recommended HD video calling bandwidth recommended download speed is 1.5 Mbps. For example, Hargray's minimum broadband speed is 5 Mbps for most customers.) In reality, however, your experience is determined by many factors, including network traffic, your own modem or router, wired or wireless access and camera quality. With that in mind, here are some tips to make your video chatting experience as painless as possible:

  • Get a decent camera. HD webcams are finally becoming widely available. While they use more bandwidth, the increase in quality is dramatic. The sooner the old 640-by-480 cameras go away, the better.
  • And position it well. Most webcams sit at the top of your monitor, which means you're not looking at the camera when talking. This is distracting for your caller. If possible, try to position the camera closer to the bottom of the screen and look straight ahead. Even better, set the camera on a stand and put it right in front of you and move the video call window on your computer off to one side so you can still see your caller.
  • Use a well-lit room. Proper lighting is an important factor in a quality video call. Natural light is best, but avoid direct sunlight on your face as it will wash out your image. If that's not an option, turn on as many lights as you can, but again -- don't shine light directly at your face.
  • Sit still. It may be difficult to limit your movements, but keep in mind any fast motions will cause lag in the video.
  • Wear a headset. As long as you don't mind looking slightly ridiculous (that depends on who you're calling, I guess), using a headset with an attached mic really is the best way to curb feedback and any echoing.
  • Embrace the lag. Unless you and your caller have the best connection known to man, you will both experience the one-second-or-so lag in the audio. The key is to expect it. Pause an extra second before you begin to speak to keep from talking over each other.
  • Go wired. Wi-Fi is great for Web surfing, but if you are doing regular video calls, consider moving your computer closer to your modem or running cable through your house. Interference, dropped connections and lag make Wi-Fi a poor choice for bandwidth-hungry video calls.
  • With all the 4Gs in the works, it won't be long before cellular wireless speeds are good enough for quality video calls on our smartphones. My guess is my son will be able to have a video call with Grandma in a few years to tell her all about his first day of kindergarten -- and do so during the drive home. I'm looking forward to that day.

    In the meantime, we'll have to make due with "only" being able to communicate with anyone in the world face-to-face on our computers. Ain't this technology stuff grand?