Use a webcam to bring your instant messaging to life

By Andy Myers

Seeing a child’s first steps is a special moment for any parent, but unfortunately for those of us working nine to five, it’s not a likely scenario. Come to think of it, there are all sorts of life experiences that we working stiffs simply miss out on while hunched over our computers all day. I can’t count the number of times my wife has called me on my cell phone, trying in vain to convey the daily hijinks of our one-year-old son. That’s where webcams can come in handy. When paired with an instant-messaging service like Windows Live Messenger, webcams can facilitate surprisingly rewarding conversations with those you care about, even while you’re stuck at work.

Picture of a webcam
A typical webcam

I’m fairly new to webcams myself. In fact, just a few short months ago, the idea of talking to my family on the computer while watching a video feed seemed like technology I would adopt somewhere between flying cars and lawn-mowing robots. Yet here I am today, making silly faces at my son and watching him learn to walk—all from my desk at work.

Picture of a Windows Live Messenger video chat in progress
"Check me out, dad!"

The future is now

Maybe you’re perfectly content with your current IM setup. Or, if you’re like me, you just can’t justify dropping cash on yet another accessory for your computer. Here’s what really sold me on giving webcams a try: they’re cheap. Ten years ago, you practically had to take out a second mortgage to get your hands on one, and the quality was barely passable. Today, even a high-definition webcam doesn’t have to strain your pocketbook. And if you’ve got Windows Live Messenger (which is free, by the way), it’s fairly easy to get a webcam up and running in no time. Follow these three simple steps to start chatting like it's 2007:

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Step 1: Get a webcam

The hardest part of getting a webcam is deciding which one to buy. The Windows Marketplace website is a good place to start looking. The commerce portal features a variety of cameras from the big three webcam manufacturers—Logitech, Creative, and Microsoft—with prices ranging from 20 to 100 bucks. It also displays specs and customer reviews to give you a good idea of the capability of each product. For the most part you get what you pay for, but some webcams are simply better values than others. Here are a few questions to ask when comparing products:

What’s the video quality like? If you can’t stand chunky, pixelated video, you may have to pony up a few more bucks for a higher-end cam. When checking a webcam’s specs, pay close attention to the pixel resolution (example: 640 x 480) and frames per second (example: 30 FPS).

Can it take still photos? Most webcams on the market can capture still photos in addition to video. Check a webcam’s snapshot resolution—higher-end models can usually capture photos at 1.3 megapixels.

Does it have a built-in microphone? If you want to experience a true video call and add your voice to a chat session, the easiest solution is to find a webcam with a built-in microphone. It may not be obvious from looking at it whether a webcam has one or not, so read the fine print to be sure.

Is it compatible with my current setup? Most webcams on the market will work with major IM tools like Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, or AOL Instant Messenger. If you’re running an earlier version of Windows, you’ll want to make sure that the webcam is compatible before buying it.

Many webcams—even middle-of-the-road models—offer some cool extra features to sweeten the deal. At work, I’m using the Microsoft LifeCam VX-3000, which runs around 40 bucks. It’s not a high-end webcam by any means, but it does have a built-in microphone, as well as a quick call button that will activate a call in Windows Live Messenger. And if you had too much coffee and can’t sit still, you can turn on face tracking, a feature that allows the webcam to automatically follow your face. (To learn more, go to the Microsoft LifeCam VX-3000 website. ) At home, I’m using the Xbox LIVE Vision Camera. This webcam is meant to be used with Xbox 360, but it seems to work fine with my old PC that is running Windows XP. This model is very straightforward, but it gets the job done. (To learn more, go to the Xbox LIVE Vision website.)

Step 2: Get an IM client

The choices are many when selecting an IM client, but unlike webcams, most of them are free. If you’re running Windows Vista, Windows Live Messenger is a good choice: it’s widely adopted, it’s compatible with almost every webcam out there, and it allows you to connect with friends who are using Messenger or Yahoo! Messenger. To install Messenger, go to the Windows Live Messenger website and follow the instructions to download the latest version.

Once you’ve got Messenger up and running, all you need is a Windows Live account to sign in and start chatting. (If you already have a Windows Live Hotmail or Microsoft Passport account, either one will work just fine.)

Step 3: Hook it up and start a call!

Now that you’ve got a webcam and an IM service, it’s time to connect the two. Like most webcams available today, my LifeCam VX-3000 connects to a computer via its USB slot, and requires a driver to run it. (The driver is typically included on the installation CD that comes with the webcam, or you can download a driver from the manufacturer's website.) With the software installed correctly, it should be smooth sailing.

Follow these steps to get your webcam up and running:

  1. Click the Start button Picture of the Start button, type Live Messenger into the Search box, and then, in the list of search results, click Windows Live Messenger‍‍‍.
  2. Sign in using your Windows Live account

  3. In the main Messenger window, click the Tools menu, and then click Audio and Video setup.

  4. Follow the steps onscreen. If you see a video feed streaming from your webcam, you’re in!

With one webcam set up at work and another at home, I waited for my wife to show up online, double-clicked her name in the Messenger contacts list to initiate a chat, and clicked the Video button. After a bit of troubleshooting (see below), I was enjoying some quality time with the family.

Working out the kinks

If you’re having trouble getting your webcam to work, here are some things you can check:

Do you have the latest driver? If you installed a driver that came on a disc with your webcam, you may need to visit the manufacturer’s website to find the most current version.

Do you have a broadband Internet connection? Most webcams are configured to work over the web with a broadband Internet connection. If you’re using dial-up, you’ll likely experience problems.

Is your computer behind a firewall? Here’s an issue I ran into while setting up my webcam. If your computer is behind a firewall and you’re having trouble initiating a video chat in Messenger, the firewall is the likely culprit. For possible solutions, go to Firewall: frequently asked questions.

Are there other programs running in the background? If you’re experiencing performance issues with your webcam (such as jerky motion or audio that is out of sync with the video), try closing the programs that you’re not using.

Don't fear the webcam

Think back about 10 years and you'll realize that webcams have truly come a long way. Businesses now use webcams for corporate communication; daycares use them to allow parents to keep an eye on their children; universities hold classes via webcam all over the world. After only a couple weeks with a webcam clipped to my computer monitor, I honestly can’t imagine not having one. It has dramatically improved the way I correspond with family and friends during the workday. Sure, it takes a little effort to set one up, and if the person you want to talk to doesn’t have one, it won’t do you much good. But these days, webcams are everywhere—many laptops today even come with one built in! And trust me, once you’ve experienced a video chat for yourself, your instant messaging will never be the same.

About the author

Picture of columnist Andy Myers

Andy Myers is a writer on the Windows team at Microsoft. He comes from the video game industry where he has worked as a magazine journalist and an author of strategy books. In his spare time, he plays and records music with various bands.

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