The first computer-to-computer voice “conference call” for readers of this newsletter was held on Thursday evening, August 10. We had simultaneous participants from all over the United States, several from Canada, two from Australia, one from New Zealand, one from Argentina, and one from Belgium. All of these people had microphones and headsets or loudspeakers connected to their computers. They all talked into the microphones and listened by using headphones in essentially the same manner as any regular telephone. There were two differences: (1.) we were using computers instead of telephones, and (2.) there were no toll charges involved.
At one time there were twenty people from around the word talking with each other. I haven't heard a party line like that since the phone company installed dial telephones back on the farm when I was a child!
While most of us thought it was Thursday evening, the participants in Australia reminded us that it was really Friday noon, and the one participant from New Zealand insisted it was Friday afternoon. Of course, it was 4:00 AM Friday morning for the Belgian person in the conversation. Whatever time zone these genealogists were in, they all seemed to enjoy the conversation.
The conference call was held on Skype, a free Internet service that allows voice conversations to be held over the Internet, using VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technology. Voice calls made from one computer to another computer are always free of charge on Skype, even if the two computers are thousands of miles apart.
Skype's service will also call regular telephones (called SkypeOut) for a fee, and calls may be placed from regular telephones to Skype members if the member has paid for that option. This week's genealogy “conference call” did not use any extra cost services. It did, however, use Skypecast,
Skypecast is a free conference call service provided by Skype. A moderator sets up the call in advance. At the appointed time, Skype members connect headsets to their computers and connect to the Skype service. By clicking on the appropriate link, they are connected to the conference call in progress. All can chat with each other, and there are no toll calls or conference call fees.
From my viewpoint, I would rate this week's genealogy Skypecast as a 95% success. Here is a list of what I think worked and did not work:
This week's scheduled topic was “How do you use this thing?” In short, this was a test outing to see if the process of group talks would work. I think everyone who participated successfully would agree it worked well. However, I know there were three or four people who could not get their microphones to work or could not join the conference. Therefore, I'd rate the overall connection rate as 95%.
Distance was not a problem. People in Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Belgium, Canada, and the United States all talked together as if they were meeting at a local lawn party.
The audio quality of the connections was generally good. In fact, it was better than what I had expected. For the twenty people who did successfully participate, the audio quality was excellent for most of the time. When we reduced the background noise (more about that later), each participant had audio quality at least as good as a standard telephone or better.
Everyone seemed enthusiastic about using a new technology and talking with people around the world at no charge.
We all were able to see a list of all participants in the conversation.
We proved that the technology will work well for genealogy lectures or the electronic equivalent of a classroom. All participants could be electronically silenced while a lecturer is giving his or her talk. Those in the audience could ask questions by first “raising their hands” by clicking on icon. The lecturer or moderator can recognize that person by turning on only that person's microphone for a question/answer exchange.
We proved that the Skypecast technology will work for all sorts of purposes. Would your genealogy society want to hold a meeting, even if some members are out of town or in another country? That meeting can be held on Skypecasts. Would you like to hold an online family reunion and allow relatives to chat together in a conference call? That also can be done on Skypecasts. Each participant needs a computer (Windows, Macintosh, Linux, or handheld Windows Mobile), an Internet connection, headphones, microphones, and a free Skype account.
What didn't work
1.The biggest issue was background noise. When three or four people were in the conversation, background noise was at a minimum. As the number of people in the conversation increased, the level of noise increased. We all heard crackling noises, echoes, barking dogs and some interruptions in the audio. With twenty microphones open at once, there was a significant amount of “stray noise” that occasionally impeded conversations.
2.Loudspeakers didn't work very well. There was an echo when participants used loudspeakers; the microphonewould pick up the sound and then send it again with a short time delay. The result was a distinctive echo. Those who used headphones/headsets had much better results.
3.Skype's software was a bit crude when it came to creating a list of participants. Twenty simultaneous participants were all listed, but with spaces between the lines. I could not see the entire list at once; I had to scroll up and down to see who was participating.
4.Sometimes we did not know who was talking. We all heard the voice, but sometimes could not associate a name with the voice.
5.Not everyone could join in. While twenty people did converse, at least three or four others struggled with microphone problems or other technical difficulties and were unable to join in.
Next week we will do it again! In order to help more people configure the software, microphones, and whatever else needs attention, we will hold another informal “How do you use this thing?” session next Thursday evening, Western hemisphere time. That will be Friday on the west side of the International Date Line. The conversation will start at 10:00 PM Eastern time, 7:00 PM Pacific and 12 noon (Friday) in Melbourne.
If you would like to participate, I would suggest that you use headphones, not loudspeakers. You also need to obtain a free Skype account in advance at http://www.skype.com. I'd also suggest that you test your equipment in advance by calling Skype's echotest service. Echotest is a “robot” that allows you to record up to ten seconds of audio, which is then played back to you. Echotest is a great way to make sure that your microphone and headphones are operating properly. The echotest service is in England, but, of course, you can reach it free of charge at Skype:echotest. Instructions are included when you download and install the free Skype software.
For another report on this conference describing the experience of one of the participants, take a look at the report at by “Jasia” http://creativegene.blogspot.com/2006/08/i-was-there-part-ii-gen-voice-chat.html.
I suspect that Thursday's informal voice chat session will again be fun. Will I see… uh, hear you there? Check http://www.eogn.com a few hours before the voice chat session for full details and a link to take you directly to the session.