Scott Hanselman

Skyping the Wife: Foolproof Video Conferencing with Your Family While on the Road

September 5, '08 Comments [9] Posted in Musings | Remote Work | Speaking | Tools
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I really like presenting and traveling around and meeting people, but I just hate being away from my kids. It's visceral. It's physically painful. I bring them whenever I can, but during this last trip to New Zealand and Australia it wasn't possible and I was away for 8 days. Almost killed me.

Since I work from home, when I need to talk to folks in Redmond I use Office Communicator, sometimes ooVoo if we need to talk to multiple people, or sometimes a Roundtable. Roundtables are cool because you get a full 360 degree view of the room.

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Using Video Conferencing has become totally fundamental to my work life, and when I travel (a few days a month) it's utterly indispensable.

I've traveled a few times and tried to call the wife via Video Conferencing and had an utter failure. We've had trouble with her figuring out how to answer the call, how to run the app, login, deal with odd dialogs, updates, and all the general gremlins that can potentially take what is supposed to be a great experience and turn it into long-distance tech-support. Nothing lowers the WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) like telling your wife to crawl under the computer desk and check the microphone cables.

I watched literally three different technical speakers try to get video conferencing work while in the speaker room on this last trip. One succeeded. All the others got themselves into situations where the spouse could IM, but not hear, or hear but not see, or whatever. "Can you hear me now?"

Foolproof Familial Video Conferencing

After a half-dozen failures I finally got smart. Here's what I ended up doing to make it easy. This has worked for my wife and I nine out of ten times (once there were connectivity problems at the hotel) and it's worked from Europe to the South Pacific.

Step 1 - Hardware

Get a good camera. I recommend the LifeCam VX- or NX- series. The VX-7000 is nice and simple for home. It has a good microphone built-in and the camera will do 640x480 at 20+fps easily.I use the NX-6000 for my laptop.

Step 2 - Software

Download Skype (or ooVoo or Live Messenger). You'll need two accounts, one for you (the techie) and one for your spouse. Personally I recommend a dedicated account for trips for your spouse. Something with a username like "ScottIsTraveling."

Step 3 - Preparation before you travel

Before you travel, declare one machine in the house that video conferencing machine. Log the spouse into the special travel account. Add your account as a Contact to the special travel account. That means that the special account will have only one friend - you. This is important.

Next, go into Options (I use Skype as an example, but hopefully other apps have similar options) and into Privacy. Set the options such that these are true:

"Only allow people who are in my contact list to contact me"

and

"Automatically answer calls from people who are in my Contact List"

and finally, and most importantly:

"Automatically Send Video"

These are the magic three options. With this setup, your spouse will have one contact, you, and when you call it will be auto-answered and the video will start.

Then I leave the account logged in and I check the video camera and microphone before I go.

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This allows me to call the house and have video start without the wife even touching the machine. Daddy can show up on the computer and say "Hi! It's me, is anyone there!?" My son can run it and start talking to me, even without Mommy's help.

One last tip, try to use whatever the highest resolution your camera, bandwidth, and software supports. I was able to get near-DVD quality (640x480) this last trip and was thrilled with the quality. Video conferencing has come a long way since my first black-and-white Logitech QuickCam.

Next time you're traveling I encourage you to try this out and see how it goes. This trip I was able to have chats with the family every night with no glitches or troubles. It almost made the time away tolerable.

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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. I am a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Friday, September 05, 2008 7:59:28 PM UTC
or just get a mac :)
Trevor
Friday, September 05, 2008 8:03:34 PM UTC
Couldn't agree more with this article. I have a MacBook and use iChat with AIM, but the setup is exactly the same, no random contacts, auto-accept chat/audio/video. I haven't gotten it up to 90% though, this works about 75% of the time. I think Skype is the next step.
Friday, September 05, 2008 8:08:21 PM UTC
Scott,

I was looking at these web cams vs the logitech ones. How well does the webcam deal with movement? Some webcams I have tried are terrible with slight movements of the person's head, and sitting still is not a trait my kids have :)

-- JP
Saturday, September 06, 2008 1:23:30 AM UTC
Very good advice Scott. I've taken to doing much the same sort of set up; but at work. As far as quality goes - well, you're right; there's a lot of progress that needs to happen to get these to the same level as dedicated ISDN lines and a Tandberg 990 MXP for instance. One thing that many of these software solutions cannot address is the quality over time issue. Skype, SightSpeed, ooVoo and Windows Live Media all provide good video (in my experience - in the order I've just listed them); but where they, and other software apps fall apart is in call quality over time - I mean like within 5 minutes. Usually that is OK if you just want to say hi to the wife and kids - but a business call that falls apart within a few minutes is unacceptable. What can help actually *not* using the highest resolution your application and webcam can handle. Perfectly good video can be 320x240 at 15 frames/second. Skype's and ooVoo's HD video is cool if you have very strong machines and rock-solid connectivity across all hops - but that seldom happens.

John Papa: I've tried many different webcams. As Scott points out, the Microsoft line is good; I've had 2 to date. My preference has always been and continues to be the Logitech QuickCam Pros - I have two of these, the QuickCam Pro 9000 and the QuickCam Pro for notebooks when I travel. But movement problems are usually found if you plug the webcam into a USB 1.1 instead of the faster USB 2.0 port - but more importantly it is the speed of your computer, bandwidth and the software you're using. I know that doesn't really help, but those are the factors which most mediate the choppiness of movement in video conferencing.
Saturday, September 06, 2008 1:33:45 AM UTC
That's really cool, Scott! I've had thoughts of Skype myself, and agonized over how to get my very non-techie wife to be able to use a Skype setup without me around when she wants to call the grandchildren in Georgia and So. California (we live in Olympia, WA), and then there's the problem of the Georgia kids who aren't particularly techie either (think: NASCAR). Unfortunately, she is very resistant to technology that is not literally plug and play -- I only got her to start using a cell phone three months ago, and that was a major coup let me tell you.

But we now have something much better: a Videophone! The neat part about it is that it plugs right into a high-speed internet connection, pretty much anywhere you can find one, and it uses VoIP to send audio and video over the net! You can even plug it into a laptop running an air card (if the speed's high enough) if there's no internet connection. It dials like a telephone and you can leave video phone messages. We have friends who take theirs with them overseas and it works in most countries. And we can call our kids on the east coast at any time just like a telephone. It beats Skype all hallow! Especially for ease of use.

Here's me leaving myself a message on a videophone: check it out.
Saturday, September 06, 2008 1:58:45 PM UTC
Mike, what are the best videophones? Are there issues with standardization?
Saturday, September 13, 2008 2:27:31 AM UTC
Gotta agree somewhat with Trevor, and I've been a PC guy my whole life! :) The integrated iSight on an iMac or MacBook paired with Skype is awesome. No other hardware need be purchased.

Seriously, though we try to do video for the kids and grandparents -- it's been a similar long distance tech call at times. For a while we both had PC's with older Logitech webcams -- had all sorts of trouble with audio feedback (we were also using Windows Messenger or whatever it was called at the time.) Anyway, a couple years ago we got an iMac and it got easy from our end we tried using iChat to their AOL client with little success -- they had no video. However, we recently convinved the grandparents to upgrade their web cam after I demo'd Skype from the iMac to my PC upstairs. Now it's amazing the quality we can get!
Sunday, September 21, 2008 6:01:14 AM UTC
Scott,

Any idea on how to get MSN messenger to auto answer video?

-Simon
Monday, September 22, 2008 9:39:45 PM UTC
Great Info Scott, while traveling have you ever tried teleconferencing with the family/business using a wireless internet card instead of wifi?
AG
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.