(Background image © NMedia / Dreamstime; webcams © Andres Rodriguez / Dreamstime)
KARL Marx wrote that human beings are intrinsically, necessarily and by definition social beings who, beyond being “gregarious creatures”, cannot survive and meet their needs other than through social cooperation and association.
Yes, we are social creatures; we like to talk and interact with others. And the internet has helped to revolutionise this via tools such as e-mail, chat, VOIP (voice over internet protocol) and webcams.
E-mail has been a godsend to many, affording a quick, efficient and cheap way to keep in touch with friends and family. Though a now indispensible tool, e-mail suffers from several drawbacks as a facilitator of human interaction.
For one thing, it does not provide real-time communication. Secondly, you are limited to only the e-mail addresses you know.
The newest computer can merely compound, at speed,
the oldest problem in the relations between human beings,
and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem,
of what to say and how to say it. – Edward R Murrow
Chat rooms helped to expand your social circle by putting you in the same group, or channel, as like-minded people. The earliest chat rooms were text-only, and an example is Internet Relay Chat (or IRC), which replaced the BBS or Bulletin Board System popular in the 1980s to the mid-1990s.
The real pull factor for chat rooms was the real-time communication it allowed users, who signed on using a nickname or nick.
I remember trying mIRC, one of the most popular IRC clients for Windows-based computers in the mid-1990s. Once you launch the client, you have access to a whole list of channels on any number of subjects. You decide which chat room you wish to join. Gamers, too, found refuge on IRC, to share tips and play games.
Some chat rooms were moderated, but almost all followed a strict etiquette that could get you banned by the channel administrator if you were not careful.
The IRC is still very much alive on the internet, and many browsers come with built-in clients.
IM what I am
But for the most part, IRC’s popularity is on the wane, thanks to the growing popularity of instant messaging (IM). The popular ones are from ICQ, Yahoo! and Microsoft, with Gmail’s Google Talk making slow headway. Here, in a more user-friendly environment, you can choose to join different chat rooms to discuss your pet peeve, or merely use IM as a communication tool with friends and colleagues.
And it is no longer limited to text-based communications. There are multiple icons or emoticons to show just how you feel; voice and video chat; and web conferencing. Users can send messages to people who are not currently logged on, and even send photos and transfer files via IM.
If you’ve ever used a webcam before, you will be familiar with the jerky images displayed on screen that make web-conferencing such a hit-and-miss proposition. A lot of this is dependent on your internet connection and the quality of your webcam.
Caught in the web
One new product out in the market is the USB plug-n-play Microsoft LifeCam Show. For a review, watch this.
You sexy thang (Source: Amazon.com) What really interested me about this mobile webcam is its ultra-thin design. It’s really sleek and simple, and wouldn’t look out of place in a designer product catalogue.
This is a fully featured webcam boasting high definition optics, a HD 2.0 megapixel sensor with 8.0 megapixel photos. It also has a built-in unidirectional microphone with noise-cancelling function, which I found to be a bit muffled in use.
The LifeCam Show is optimised for use with Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger and Skype.
Fixing the product to the laptop using the attachments is easy. My laptop already came with a webcam, so I had to clip the LifeCam Show to the side. The device clips easily into place, thanks to the magnet discs provided. You can also clip it to the webcam stand provided, and place it next to your desktop. Either way, you get a good widescreen 71-degree view — great to capture a lot of action.
Before plugging in the webcam, you need to install the accompanying software, a process which takes too long. I found out later that you can actually use it without installing the software, but you lose out on some functions.
This hardware only works with Windows Vista or Windows XP Service Pack 2 or later. The system resources required are also on the high side — if your computer is more than 18 months old, I doubt you’ll be able to use this webcam. I tried installing it on a four-year old NEC laptop and it all but choked.
The LifeCam also offers 5X digital zoom and video effects built in. The latter feature is really fun: you can change aspects of people’s faces, and add stuff that moves in tandem with the image. So there’s a certain playful quality to the device that gives added value to the webcam.
Picture quality in normal light is excellent. The still photos look crisp and clear. But under low light situations, the image is on the dull side, but still viewable; certainly a step up from most built-in webcams.
Yahoo!! During video chatting, which I tried out on Yahoo! Messenger and Skype, there was a slight lag — more apparent on Skype — that bordered on the side of annoying. I am not sure if the internet connection and video card play a huge part in how well this webcam works, but I imagine they would have an impact.
The sound was also not as loud or clear as I had hoped, but there are several ways you can optimise the settings to ensure a better quality.
This device is optimised for Windows Live Messenger, and users with this software will be able to get the most out of the LifeCam Show, which retails for RM329.
As webcam technology and computer software become more sophisticated, it will finally bridge the gap in interactive communications that has been missing from the internet. But there are new frontiers waiting to be fully integrated with the personal computer and internet experience.
The near future will bring holographic projection and fully immersive virtual technology that incorporates smell, taste and touch. I can’t wait.
Random pic. Grin and bear it (Pic by Jenny Downing / Flickr)
N Shashi Kala is waiting for the day when virtual avatars can leave the confines of the digital world.