Dick Tracy’s wrist radio is here

I remember reading about Dick Tracy in the funny papers when I was a boy. I always marveled at his nifty-neato wrist radio that sent pictures too. Years went by and I dabbled in all sorts of communication media, eventually finding my way to the wonderful world of webcams. At last I can chat with family and friends and there will be none of the maddening misunderstandings brought about by primitive text-only e-mail! Whoo hoo! Dick Tracy lives!

Excited beyond words (but not to worry, gestures come through fine on a webcam) I set about getting my friends and family set up to use their webcams – and thereby hangs this tale. While some of them had computers with built-in cameras others needed to buy an add-on. In some cases I discovered their computer simply didn’t have the oomph to make a webcam work properly. Eventually I came up with a short list of notes that any aspiring Dick Tracy would need to read:

  • If your computer is more than five years old you might not be able to use a webcam effectively. Processor speed over 1 GHz is helpful and more is better.
  • If you’re on dialup, stop trying and get cable or DSL.
  • Make sure there’s sufficient light for the camera to work – even the Bat Cave had lights.
  • Place the camera so when you look at the screen to see your fellow webanaut it appears you’re looking at them – i.e. the webcam app window should be close to the camera pickup. Otherwise you’ll appear to be looking in some random direction – distracting at best.
  • Make sure the camera is fastened down firmly or you’ll look like you’re in a continuous earthquake and your friends may need Dramamine.
  • Be sure to speak clearly and have as little ambient noise as possible – turn the heavy metal down/off and refrain from tapping on things.

Now that I had them wired up, the next step was getting on the right ‘wavelength’ – there’s a couple of ways you can connect webcam users:

Skype – originally an internet telephony tool, it now supports video and is available for PC and Macintosh computers. It’s fairly easy to set up and lets PC and Mac users connect seamlessly. You’ll need to get a free Skype account.

iChat – exclusively Mac but comes standard on new machines and is fall-off-a-log simple to set up and use. Requires an AOL instant messenger (AIM) account.

There are also literally dozens of other webcam-support programs out there but those two will give you the best chance of getting a relative newbie up and running.

So now that I’ve gotten my coterie of communication-savvy geeks and geekettes set up with webcams, good computers and software there’s only one question left:

What do we talk about?

Tune in next time when I’ll be discussing digital video. Until then remember: Webcams and wine don’t mix.

Doug Wray is webmaster for the CU-Boulder Alumni Association, an instructor at Boulder Digital Arts and a huge geek.

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