Want to keep in touch with family and friends that are spread across the county or around the world without spending a lot of money? Want to set up a camera to monitor your home? How about video conferencing? All this and more is possible with a simple device called a webcam.

webcam.jpgWould you like to talk on the telephone where you could see the other party? Even better, would you like to talk to 3 or 4 people at once and see them all? Want to do videoconferencing for business? How about setting up a camera to monitor your home?

All these things are possible with a simple little inexpensive device called a webcam. A webcam is simply a camera attached to your computer to transmit video over the Internet. Many of the current crop of laptop computers have webcams built right into the computer. All you see is a small "eye" above the screen. The software comes pre-installed on the computer so you can start using it immediately.

If you don't have a laptop with a built-in webcam, don't dismay. You can easily add a webcam to your current computer. You can purchase a webcam fairly inexpensively. Logitech, one of the major webcam manufacturers, has webcams that retail from $30 to $130. Of course, you get what you pay for. The cheaper cams have basic capabilities and minimal picture quality. Logitech's top-of the-line model has motorized tracking, autofocus, and Carl Zeiss optics. That said, I will tell you that even the cheapest webcam can open a whole new world and can really be fun.

Once you purchase the webcam, you simply install the software and plug the webcam into your computer. Most webcams use the USB port on your computer and come with the necessary cable. Almost all webcams have a built-in microphone, so they handle the audio as well as the video.

Once installed, you can start to use the webcam immediately. If you are already chatting with friends on Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, or AOL Instant Messenger, you can immediately use your webcam to show your friends live video of yourself while you chat.

You can also use your computer with its webcam for calling other friends and relatives through their computers. The most popular software for doing this is a free program called Skype. You simply download their free program. Have your friends and/or relatives do the same. Each party gets a Skype user name when they install the program. Then you get simply use the Skype software to call your friend's computer, using their Skype user name. The whole process is pretty simple. I use Skype to call my daughter and her family in Sweden. Not only do I get to see the grandkids, but since we are using the Internet, there are no long distance telephone charges.

If you have a large family or a big network of friends, you can also check out the  ooVoo software at Oovoo lets you talk to and see up to six people at once. The software for video calls between two people is free, but you must pay to be able to conference in more than two. Skype also has a paid service that will let you place video calls between several people.

Webcams are fun to use. One example is a recent "webcam" conversation that I had while I was talking to my daughter and her family. My 4-year-old granddaughter lifted up her dress and stuck her rear end into the camera so that I could see her new Mickey Mouse was truly a priceless moment. The first time that you see the person you are talking to smile at one of your lame jokes, you will be as hooked on webcams as I am.

You can have some fun with webcams by personalizing yourself with fun effects. You can put a crown on your head, add funny glasses, give yourself facial hair, or even turn yourself into a talking animal. Just about anything is possible. Whether you want to entertain the kids or surprise a friend, you can really have some fun with these special effects. Many of today's webcams come with this type of video effects software and it can also be purchased separately.

Webcams are often used for videoconferencing for businesses and telemedicine where doctors can access and see patients in hard-to-reach rural areas. If you travel for business, webcams are the perfect way to keep in touch with family and friends when you are on the road.

There are many other uses for webcams, as well. You can use them to take still pictures and videos that you can save to your hard disk and/or email to your friends. You can set up a webcam and stream your video over the Internet with a free service like Stickam or USTREAM. You would be amazed by the number of people who set up their webcams and use one of these services to be "on camera" all day long! With additional software, you can use your webcam to monitor your home. Some even have built-in motion detection.

If you haven't yet entered the world of webcams, take the plunge. You'll be glad you did!

BTW, Skype also has a plan called Skypout that lets you use your computer to call any regular telephone. Rates are very resonable. Click on the Skype ad below for more information.