In a recent interview-type article for AARP I was asked what new technology proved to be most useful in my life. Without a second thought, I answered VOIP (Voice Over IP).
To use these services you simply add a microphone to your computer and download some software. The person that you want to call does the same. Then you can talk to each other just as you would on the telephone, but without incurring any long distance fees. In fact, there are no fees of any kind other than your Internet connection. All you need is a microphone and the speaker(s) on your computer. On a broadband connection the whole thing works seamlessly. I use VOIP everyday, especially to make calls to my daughter and her family in Sweden.
Recently Skype added video functionality to their service. Yes, you can now see the other party while you are talking. Since I have two grandchildren in a distant land, this was something that I needed to try immediately.
I updated the Skype software, which took less than five minutes. Then I attached a small webcam to my computer. I pulled a 3-year old Logitech webcam out of the drawer and plugged it into the USB port on my Windows XP computer. It worked without any software. The webcam has a built-in microphone, which also worked seamlessly. When I started Skype it automatically detected my webcam and gave me a chance to test my camera and get it situated properly. My daughter already had a webcam so all she had to do was update the Skype software.
I placed the Skype call with the click of my mouse and Voila! I could see and talk to my daughter and granddaughters. It was both wonderful and amazing. The video can be played in a small window with good clarity or full screen with a bit a graininess. The quality of the video was not exceptional, but it was good enough for me to see my granddaughter take her first step, Well -- perhaps it was almost a step, but in any case I felt like I was a part of their lives. We live more than 4,000 miles apart, but I can now see Alexandra sing the alphabet song and watch Josephine wave to me. What a thrill!
Our enthusiasm has cooled slightly since that first call. We do not use the video on every call now. More often we just talk over Skype or Google as we would on the telephone. Yet a few times a week, when we both have time, we turn on the video and have some additional fun. It is wonderful to have a technology like this that can bring families together over the Internet. Oh, and did I mention that it is free? I saving a bundle on long distance telephone charges and loving every minute of it.
Skype offers additional services on a fee basis. Their SkypeOut service let’s you call traditional telephone numbers from your computer if you have friends or relatives that don’t own a computer. If you make long distance telephone calls and you have a Windows XP computer, you really should try this out. It’s easy and it’s fun!