Scott Hanselman

Will Video Chat ever work?

September 10, '07 Comments [20] Posted in Musings
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skypevideoLast year in January I randomly declared 2006 the year of Video Chat. Skype so totally nailed audio chat that I just assumed video was next. Here we are, over 18 months later and as far as I'm concerned it's still not working well.

As far as I can tell, the problem is three things:

  • drivers
  • add-on (crap)-warelets
  • firewalls.

Probably in that order.

Drivers

I went to Office Despot and picked up a Microsoft LifeCam VX-6000 for the wife's machine since I had an NX-6000 before.

Side note: If you seriously hunt around Office Depot you can find some sweet deals. The cam was marked $59.99, but rung up as $39.99 and also had a $10 rebate. Half price baby baby!

The software that comes with these cameras is egregiously bad pretty rough. When I picked up my NX-6000, the LifeCam software was 1.0 or 1.1 and worked fine. It was simple. I ask little of my video camera.

There's a Windows Service called MSCAMSVC (Waaa? A Windows Service installed for a Web Camera? That is an odd architectural choice, IMHO. Some kind of strange singleton decision made there, it would seem.) and when the camera is accessed another process called "lifetray.exe" pops up. Unfortunately it also often pops up with this C++ Assertion on Line 864 of NX6000CameraImpl.cpp. When I try to uninstall it I'm told it's from an "Unknown Publisher." Hm. That's odd.

Cutesy Webcam Applets

Now the software is on LifeCam 1.3 and I upgraded. (No, not my Vista 64 machine, a random 32-bit laptop.) The software has all sorts of questionable options like overlaid pictures of swimming fish. Webcam Program Managers - Is that really something that the public wants? I just want it to appear in the list of cameras when I launch Skype or Live Messenger. That's all.

Where's the Drivers Only installation option? Is there someway I can get this camera to work without installing the cartoon characters and Out of Process COM Servers?

lifetrayassertion

(I wonder if I'll be able to look at line 864 when I work for Microsoft?)

Often I get all black, or all white or all gray video being captured from this camera. I don't know if the program is Skype or the camera or drivers or a little bit of all of them.

I haven't any experience with any Logitech Cameras after the original QuickCam, but I may have to talk this NX-6000 back to the store and get a Logitech. Any recommendations?

At any rate, I plugged and unplugged and plugged and unplugged and eventually got it to work (see picture above).

Firewalls

For the life of me, I can't get Windows Live Call (I think that's the name for a video/audio/chat session in Messenger. It's unclear how that's different from "send a webcam.") to work over any reasonable firewall. However, I can get Skype to work pretty well, but the resolution and frame-rate is blocky at best. (Again, see the full screen chat above.)

Skype is the closest I've seen on Windows to getting Video Chat right. However, both Live Messenger and Skype seem to be limited to 640x480 at low framerate, possible due to the codecs but more likely do to the NAT and/or relaying of traffic at low bit rates.

If someone gets this right on Windows, it'll be very cool. Then I can build ScottAnywhere.

Just for fun, go Google for "Full Screen Video Chat made easy." I just did in desperation. ;)

About Scott

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

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Monday, September 10, 2007 8:57:32 AM UTC
I had similar driver/crapware troubles some years ago when I bought a Philips 'TouCam'. I then tried it on a Linux box. I ran GnomeMeeting, plugged in the webcam, and instantly saw myself. I tried a few test calls and it worked perfectly. This was fantastic until I found it was difficult to talk to anyone who wasn't on GnomeMeeting. It was the correct user experience in terms of drivers/software, though.

Monday, September 10, 2007 11:27:38 AM UTC
"Unknown Publisher" is a known issue on Vista. Windows Installer's cached copy of the original MSI has data removed to reduce it's size, thereby invalidating the embedded digital signature.
Dean
Monday, September 10, 2007 11:36:23 AM UTC
I did the dirty and picked up a LifeCam VX6000 a while back after having numerous issues with Logitech and their support for Windows Vista x64. Unfortunately Logitech have very limited support for x64 and don't plan on making any x64 drivers available for existing cameras. Well lets just say the SKU I have only certain hardware revisions are going to be supported. Shocking!

My LifeCam VX6000 works like a charm with Vista x64, no issues to date. I wouldn't return it as I don't believe there is anything that can compete with it. I personally don't care for those video overlay functions, but I'm sure some kid in some remote part of the world will find them amusing for about 10 minutes or less.
Monday, September 10, 2007 12:00:01 PM UTC
Scott:

I think a lot of the problem you're dealing with is the camera. I do video chat with my family and we use the Logitech Fusion:
http://www.amazon.com/Logitech-961403-0403-Quickcam-Fusion/dp/B000AA2IC8

It's got a built-in mic, so you don't have to worry about headsets (essential for WAF *and* the GAF, the grandparent acceptance factor)

No crapware, drivers are good, and the camera is excellent. Very good in low light, wide lens -- you know, so you can actually see the people you're talking with. I highly recommend it.

On the SW side, we use Skype. It could be better, but it's decent. From what I can tell, the quality of the video you see depends on the upload bw of the person you're chatting with. Wanna have some fun? Try diagnosing bandwidth & latency issues with someone who's not a techie. Wheee.

My parents are on a satellite hookup, so their bandwidth is pretty low, but hey -- it's better than dialup. For them, we mute audio on both sides and that makes the framerate better. The application really ought to be self-tuning or at least let you tune it manually, but it doesn't. (Slingbox has gotten this done, why can't Skype? It's not like they don't have the cash.)

Anywho -- that's my experience with it. Tried Yahoo chat but man that was a crappy experience.
Dave
Monday, September 10, 2007 12:10:15 PM UTC
Bah, just get a macbook pro already! :)
I did, and I love it! Plus, my somewhat-tech-savvy-but-yet-not-too-tech-savvy parents/in-laws have one, and simple, decent quality full-screen chat is a reality for us.
And I've found myself booting my mac to windows more and more lately - but that's as I do more and more programming on it.
Monday, September 10, 2007 1:37:05 PM UTC
iChat works pretty well for me; no need for drivers or dealing with webcam crapplets. I'm not sure if it automatically deals with firewalls, though. I think the OS X firewall has a built-in exception for iChat, but I don't use the firewall.
JS
Monday, September 10, 2007 2:41:50 PM UTC
Fear of this sort of experience is one of the reasons that I don't have a web cam. It's amazing they way companies create great hardware only to ruin it with bad software.

One interesting thing about searching for "Full screen video chat made easy", this blog post is already number 3 in the results.
Monday, September 10, 2007 4:14:15 PM UTC
+1 for iChat. The video chat works seamlessly.
Monday, September 10, 2007 4:38:16 PM UTC
I recently picked up a Logitech QuickCam 5000 ($30 after rebate) to replace a Creative webcam that was never going to get Vista drivers. So for, it's working well. It has a drivers-only install option, and it even worked on my wife's Mac (even though it's not a formally supported platform).
Monday, September 10, 2007 4:40:46 PM UTC
BTW, SightSpeed seems to consistently get the best reviews for video chat. I haven't tried it yet, but I've been meaning to.
Monday, September 10, 2007 4:56:47 PM UTC
Interestingly enough, the video chat over Xbox 360 is actually pretty good. That sort of corresponds to the same reason I like console gaming more than PC gaming - on the console, you're sort of guaranteed that things "just work" (everyone has the same black box full of components); on PC, you've gotta futz with drivers and applications and so forth. I video chat with my parents over Xbox 360 all the time and it's easy enough for my parents to figure out. I think that counts for a lot.
Monday, September 10, 2007 5:59:47 PM UTC
Hey Scott, video will continue to be hit and miss as long as we continue to have flaky video hardware attached to the whole deal. However, I think that there's one more big issue here: bandwidth.

I've successfully used Skype for video chat with only minor delay over a wireless network. Of course, I was also using the top-notch consumer cable connection in my area, you know the one where you spend an extra $10-30/month. I think that Dan kind of nailed it with the upload bandwidth speed being the limiting factor.

Most of us have great download speeds, but ISPs are notorious for really low caps on the upload speed. If I'm limited to 256Kb/s there's not a lot that can be done to cram better quality video into the available space. If I'm on wireless I'm just adding another potential issue. Firewalls are still an issue, but I seem to recall that Skype has already skirted many of the firewall issues.

Truth is, even if you eliminate the big three problems that you mention, lots of consumers still won't have the bandwidth to even correctly display the 640x480 video unless they're specifically picking the high-end connections. All of the high-quality cams in the world can't cram 2 Megs of data into a 256k pipe.
Monday, September 10, 2007 6:11:01 PM UTC
I am going to comment on something subtle you mentioned, not camera related.

When you do work for MS and you notice an issue with an MS software you care about, will you go through the trouble to hunt the issue down with the PM/developer(s) or let it go?

I have noticed two camps in people who care about software/hardware/websites/products we use everyday. People who care and the ones who do not care (or too lazy?).

Personally I take the time and energy to contact the person or company about an issue I am having with a product or service even if it's a simple issue. I am a person who *cares*. I want the product/service to improve and some companies do listen to their customers.

ok.. sorry for my rant :)

I have a Linksys (I think) wireless webcam which I got about two years ago which worked well. I am not into video chatting so it's collecting dust now.
Abdu
Monday, September 10, 2007 8:20:22 PM UTC
Hey Now Scott,
Video chat will work when we can easily chat with our folks & they can see their grandchildren. Nice post, I really enjoy your blog & especially you podcast.
Thx,
Catto
Monday, September 10, 2007 9:48:31 PM UTC
Travis Illig,

I also use the video chat on the Xbox 360 and it works well enough for me. The camera can also be plugged into any XP/Vista computer with USB 2.0 and that worked easily for me as well. I was just using the Windows Live Messenger built in video chat. I'd recommend the camera just because it is cheap and can be used with both the computer and the 360.
Bradley Landis
Tuesday, September 11, 2007 12:20:29 AM UTC
Speaking of Skype, I have recently started to use Philips VOIP8411B with the combination of SkypeIn and SkypeOut. I have to say this is a great product and service that allows me to have unlimited calls within US and Canada for about $66.00 per year. If you don't care about receiving calls (no SkypeIn), it's about $36 per year. I love the phone so much that I added another handset to the existing base station. Just be aware that 911 is not available, so I do keep my cell. phone just in case and when I'm away from home.

Sure I could just call in and out using my computer, but the convenience of having a real phone that lets me use the Skype network has increased the frequency of me calling my parents in Japan. It's the feeling of having the "real phone" in our living room is so much better than carrying a bulky laptop with a tangling headset around the house. ;-) I highly recommend the product!
Tuesday, September 11, 2007 12:29:08 PM UTC
like overlaid pictures of swimming fish


Haha, can we can a picture of that, sounds like an awesome feature :).
Tuesday, September 11, 2007 3:30:38 PM UTC
I highly recommend the Logitech Quickcam Fusion. A friend of mine had the same MS camera as you and when we tried them out, his video sucked hard and mine had a great resolution and quality. He returned his and got the Logitech and the video is 100 times better!! It's a bit more spendy but worth the cost. You can use it without all the "add on" crapware too.
Hazzard
Friday, September 28, 2007 4:36:11 PM UTC
It looks like iRobot has an out-of-the-box solution for ScottAnywhere. iRobot ConnectR
Friday, September 28, 2007 4:51:01 PM UTC
Yes, I'm on the list, the only problem is that they won't be able to see me!
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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.