Over the holidays, millions of family gatherings will occur in homes all across the world. In the cases of families separated by great distances, telephone calls will be made. In fact, with speakerphones in use on both ends, entire families may chat together at once. Now, thanks to a new product from Microsoft, families can video conference across the miles, using either standard or widescreen televisions.
Wouldn't it be better to have live video conferencing than a simple telephone call? Not only can families talk, but they can see each other as well. This is great for seeing the new grandchildren, the nieces and nephews who are growing rapidly, or the new sweater that Aunt Martha received for Christmas. Indeed, video conferencing is much more personal and even heart-warming than a simple audio conversation.
Video conferencing has been available now for some years. Equipment for video conferencing first became available about fifteen years ago but cost thousands of dollars at that time. In the first few years, video conferencing was confined to corporate board rooms. As webcams became popular on Windows and Macintosh computers, the idea of video conferencing expanded. Today, even the $250 netbook computers sold at the local department store usually include built-in webcams that allow video conferencing with friends and family around the world, usually at no cost other than a normal broadband Internet connection. All you need is a standard computer with speakers and a microphone and a webcam. Your present computer may already have a webcam built in. If not, you can add one for $40 or so.
Of course, you will also need software. Skype and Apple iChat are probably the two best-known video conferencing services. However, Yahoo Chat, Google Video Chat, Microsoft Live, and probably several dozen other services also are available for video conferencing. Most of the services are available free of charge, and most of the software is free. All that is required is a computer at each caller’s site, each with a broadband Internet connection. You can exchange two-way video with friends and relatives across town or on the other end of the world. I have read that many military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan will be holding video conferences with loved ones back home over the holidays.
Two-way video by use of computers typically produces tiny, postage stamp-sized "windows" that display the video of the other person(s) in the conversations. Expanding the video to full screen on a computer usually produces a grainy and "jerky" image. The Apple iChat is a noteworthy exception. However, Microsoft has now released a new product that I believe will revolutionize video conferencing.
Microsoft’s new product is an extension of the well-known Xbox gaming system. The Microsoft Xbox has been available as a game console for several years. The Xbox connects to any normal television set and is typically used to play computer games. Now Microsoft has introduced a new peripheral that plugs into the Xbox 360, called the Kinect (pronounced "connect"). The Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360 is described as a "controller-free gaming and entertainment experience." You can play games by moving your body. Depending on the game being played, you kick, jump, wave your hand, use your voice, and otherwise become a part of the action. The Kinect provides fully interactive football, dancing, or even slower activities such as Tai Chi.
As Microsoft states in the company's advertising, "Kinect gets everyone in the room off the couch and right into the excitement of the game, laughing, cheering and moving together. See a ball on screen? Wind back and give it a kick. Revolutionary technology includes body recognition that captures your body movements and mirrors your motions in the game, making you the controller."
Indeed, playing games with the Kinect is a lot of fun. However, I might suggest the real "sleeper" application for the Kinect is video conferencing.
Inside the Kinect is a 640-by-480-pixel video camera, four microphones, and several infrared sensors. Notice the words "video camera." This thing will work as a high-quality webcam. Keep in mind that it does not require a Windows or Macintosh computer. Instead, the Xbox 360 connects to standard television sets, even that new 53-inch plasma set that may be in your living room. The Xbox 360 also connects to the Internet, either through a wired connection or a wireless wi-fi connection. All you need is a bit of software. Of course, Microsoft supplies the needed software as well. In fact, the required software is included at no additional charge.
The Kinect’s new smart camera does a lot more than an ordinary computer webcam, automatically panning, zooming, and physically tilting up and down to follow you around the room while you chat. If another person walks into the viewing area, the camera automatically reframes the shot to fit everyone in. When connected to a large television set, the Kinect for Xbox 360 becomes an excellent video conferencing system!
Best of all, you do not need to have a Kinect for Xbox 360 on both ends of the conference. Either (or both) ends of the video teleconference can be held on any Windows or Macintosh computer, assuming the two are connected together via Windows Live Messenger. (Other video conferencing services will also work on Windows or Macintosh, but not on the Xbox 360.)
The software is free, but the hardware may be expensive, depending upon which devices you select. If you already have a Windows or Macintosh computer with a webcam and you also have a broadband Internet connection, you can participate now in video conferences at no additional charge. However, if you want to move up to a large-screen environment, you will obviously need a television set (which you probably already have), a Microsoft Xbox 360 (which you may already have), and a Kinect for Xbox 360 (which is a brand-new product, so you probably don't have one yet). While the video can be expanded to fill an entire screen on even the largest television set, that video will still be limited to 640-by-480 pixels, the maximum available from the webcam inside the Kinect.
The Xbox 360 (without the Kinect) sells for about $200 to $250 at the various discount stores. The new Kinect for Xbox 360 sells for about $150. I see that Best Buy sells both the Xbox 360 and the Kinect together as a package for $299 (see http://goo.gl/5sWos for details).
NOTE: BestBuy.com lists the package of the Xbox 360 and the Kinect as "sold out" right now but the company does expect a new supply shortly. I don't know if the Kinect will be available there before Christmas or not.
The bottom line is this: the Xbox 360 with the Kinect becomes a multi-purpose device. Walk into the house with this combination, and the youngsters in the family will go wild. (Make sure you also purchase several video games!) However, the adults, even grandma, will appreciate the ability to "visit" with friends and families many miles away, all at no additional charge. You can converse for hours.
Again, you do not need an Xbox 360 with Kinect on both ends of the conversation. You only need these devices if you wish to use a television set for the display. Otherwise, any webcam-equipped Windows or Macintosh computer can be used, and the video will be displayed on the computer's screen. I have had good luck with two-way Skype video on a $250 netbook computer purchased at the local Target store. However, that cannot compete with the sight of your new grandchild as seen on a 53-inch television set.
For a demonstration of two-way video conferencing in action, see the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35KpZ8kPsb0&feature=player_embedded or click on the image below:
Note that the two men involved in the video conversation are using mixed equipment: one uses a television set, an Xbox 360, and a Kinect, while the other uses a standard Windows computer with a plug-in webcam.
Now, let's invite Grandma to a video conference. If someone in your family already owns an Xbox 360, you might want to give them a Kinect for Christmas.
You could also hold a meeting of the Board of Directors for your genealogy society this way!