How does a webcam work? A small camera attached to your computer sends video images back and forth between you and another webcam user so you can have conversations just like you would if you were actually face-to-face. Communicating through a webcam is similar to using traditional video conferencing. But instead of sending images through phone lines, webcams use Internet chat programs, such as instant messaging (IM) tool, to deliver the video and sound. For example, if you wanted to talk with your best friend via a webcam, you'd both log into the same IM program and video chat in a private window that appears on both of your computers.
Setting up a webcam for the first time might seem a bit intimidating -- but getting started is easier than you think. By following a few simple steps, you'll be ready to start video chatting in no time.
Get the gear
In addition to your computer, you only need four things to connect with your family members via a webcam:
Webcams come in lots of shapes and sizes, but the most popular ones are eyeball cameras -- small, round devices that usually sit on your desk or on top of your monitor.
"The easiest way is to use the same type of camera on both ends of a chat," says Shane Williams, owner of a major computer retailer in southern California. "Theoretically, it shouldn't matter, but we find that people have fewer connection issues when they've got equipment from the same vendor."
While some bare-bones webcams can cost $50 or less, these baseline models won't include everything you want (like auto focus, so grandma can see you clearly). According to Williams, cameras in the $100 range should provide the features you need -- including a built-in microphone, which you would have to buy and set up separately if it's not included in your webcam. Most webcams can also take still pictures just like your digital camera. And if you're willing to part with up to $350, you can get a camera with motion sensors that, for example, let you use it as a "nanny cam" or security camera that will begin recording once it senses movement in a room.
2. Webcam software
Software enables your webcam to connect to your computer, and it is included with the camera when you buy it. One word of caution: Make sure you read the installation instructions before you plug the camera into your computer! It's rare, but sometimes plugging in the camera before the software is installed will prevent it from working properly. In recent months, it is becoming more and more common for the software and hardware to both be installed on your laptop already.
3. Internet connection
Any Internet connection will do, but broadband, such as DSL or cable Internet access, will give you the best picture and sound quality. You can connect via a hard cable, or through an invisible Wi-Fi connection.
4. Chat program
Instant messaging tools are another way to video chat with your friends and family because most are already on your buddy list and your chats will be totally private. Some of them have it built into the chat, some, like VIA3 already have video meetings that arent depending on IM.
Assuming you choose a webcam with a built-in microphone, getting it set up should only take a few minutes. Read the camera's user manual and follow the installation instructions. Next, plug the webcam into your computer (they usually attach via a USB cable). The computer should now "see" the new device and pop up a short message that tells you how to start using it.
At this point, you're ready to start using your webcam. Adjust your camera's focus -- point it toward your face, turn the focus dial until the picture becomes clear on your computer screen. To kick off a video chat session, you and your chat partner should both be online and logged into the same IM program. Send a request to your friend by clicking your program's webcam or chat icon. Once your friend accepts the invite, you'll both see each other in the small windows on your computer screen. Your conversation can begin.
Ready to start your own video and audio meetings to show off your face and new camera? Try VIA3 for free to get started, at http://www.viack.com/.