Reach Out And See Someone

Instead of picking up the phone, launch that video link

Business trips really should be a blast. You get to stay in fancy hotels, meet new people, and eat in restaurants every night, while your boss picks up the tab. The reality, of course, is that it's often lonely in those fancy hotels or in restaurants chowing down sushi or sauerbraten on your own. For me, the novelty quickly wears off, and I find myself craving the companionship and conversation I get at the family dinner table. The nightly phone call just doesn't cut it.

So on a recent month-long trip to Asia, I decided to upgrade my communications. I packed a Webcam, one of those golf-ball-shaped jobs that you can stick on top of your computer to broadcast pictures on the Internet. Since most of the hotels I was booked in had high-speed Net connections and we had broadband and a Webcam at home, I figured it would be a breeze to set up a trans-Pacific video link.

APOLLO 13 QUALITY

I was only partially right. As is so often the case with computers, it wasn't exactly a snap to get started. But in the end I worked out the kinks and was able to talk with and see my wife and two daughters every morning and evening. Sure, it had a bit of an Apollo 13 quality: The video was grainy and jerky, and we couldn't talk from both ends of the connection at the same time. (If we did, we got an endless loop of echoes that rendered conversation impossible.) But my ability to see my girls, and theirs to see me, made the 7,000 miles between us almost melt away. Sometimes we would simply leave the connection open for hours, giving me a window into our study at home, and my family a view of my room in Beijing or Tokyo.

Even better, it didn't cost a penny. The Web connection was included in the room rate at the hotels where I was staying, although some hotels charge from $5 to $15 per day for broadband. And I used Yahoo! (YHOO ) Messenger software, which can be downloaded free of charge. AOL (TWX ), MSN (MSFT ), and Apple (AAPL ) offer similar service gratis.

After installing the software, my wife and I launched the program and were soon able to send text messages to each other. The video and audio were a bit more complex and required patience. For instance, the audio didn't function properly the first dozen or so times we tried. By repeatedly pressing the software's voice button, though, we finally got it to work. The system would also freeze up about once a day, or we'd lose the images or sound. So we sent a lot of text messages saying: "Can you see me now?" or "I can't hear you." An even bigger problem came up when I tried using the system in our Hong Kong office. There, the corporate firewall would let only text messages through.

Since returning, I've checked out other services. MSN's video is a bit better than Yahoo's, and AOL's is worse. But the difference is small, so if you've already got an account and use either one for instant messaging, you should stick with the program you know. I also tried video-calling services SightSpeed, VibePhone, and Logitech VideoCall, which offer better sound and images but will set you back $5 to $20 monthly. Ultimately, though, any of the services is better than a simple phone call. And they sure make that solo sushi dinner more fun, even when someone else is paying the bill.

By David Rocks

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