As mentioned in an earlier article, I hosted a Google+ Hangout on Monday evening. The results of that first hangout were mixed. I wasn't too happy with it. However, I dropped back, tried a couple of things with my web browsers, then joined other genealogy hangouts that were in progress later te same evening and had much better results. I am now quite pleased with the hangouts. I thought I would share some of my discoveries and experiences.
First, a "hangout" is Google's term for a multi-user video conference.
Up to ten people can converse with each other online. All users may converse via keyboard-to-keyboard. In addition, if they have video cameras (often called "web cams") and microphones installed, the participants can also send and receive live video and audio. Web cams and microphones are not required, however. Several participants in last night's hangouts did not have working web cams, and one or two couldn't get their microphones to work. They were still able to converse either by keyboard or by audio without video.
I had fun seeing and talking with genealogists in Australia as well as from all over the United States and Canada. One person in the first hangout was located only a few miles from me, and yet another participant in the same session was in Australia. Computers and the Internet certainly are shrinking the world!
My first attempt at a hangout wasn't very successful. The audio worked great but I couldn't see or send video. I tinkered and tried some different things, but without much success at first. Finally, I found the cure: close out the web browser and then re-open it.
Apparently, the problem stems from my habit of loading a web browser and then keeping 20 or 25 browser windows open at all times, one window each on 20 or 25 different web sites. To switch from one to another, I just move the mouse and click on the appropriate tab. I have used multiple browser windows for years and it has always worked well, until last night.
I am guessing that sending and receiving video consumes more CPU cycles and probably more memory than does the normal display of a web page. With all those windows open, I apparently had "max'ed out" Firefox. I simply close the web browser and then re-opened it and used only one window. That solved the problem immediately.
I later joined hangouts with both Firefox and with Chrome and was successful with both. Both worked perfectly, as long as I kept it to one open browser window. I suspect that two or three windows will also work but certainly not 25 simultaneous open windows. I did not experiment last night to find the maximum useable number; I'll settle for one right now. I may experiment in the future with more simultaneous open windows.
Next, several people had difficulty making web cams or microphones work. What we all learned is this: if the web cam or microphone doesn't work on other applications, it won't work on Google+ Hangouts.
It will be easier to experiment and troubleshoot video or audio problems in advance rather than waiting until the middle of a hangout. Make sure your camera and microphone work on other applications before joining a hangout. If those items work in other applications, they are almost certain to work in Google+ Hangouts.
The limitation of ten simultaneous participants is both good news and bad news. It certainly was limiting as there were still more people who wanted to join the hangouts, but they received error messages of "busy" until one person left, freeing up a "slot." Then one new person could join.
While a maximum of ten simultaneous participants certainly is a limitation, having more than that induces its own problems. I well remember having audio chats in the past with 25 or 35 simultaneous participants. It was bedlam! Without a control mechanism or a protocol for deciding whose turn it is to talk, having large groups online simultaneously can create a lot of confusion.
Ten strikes me as a reasonable number.
I really like Google's method of automatically switching the video to the person speaking at the time. With ten people in the conversation, as soon as any one person started speaking, his or her video appeared on my screen. When he or she paused and then someone else started to speak, the video automatically switched to display the face of the second person. When a third person started to speak, the video switched to the third person and so on. The result was a smooth and intuitive experience.
All in all, I enjoyed the Google+ hangouts. However, once the newness wears off, I probably won't use them often. I don't have much need for group video chats, other than for amusement.
HOWEVER, I can see this new service as being great for families or for group meetings, such as a board meeting of a genealogy society. Let's start with families.
Let's assume that you have grown children and perhaps grandchildren. I would suggest that a weekly "virtual family reunion" at a pre-defined time would be a great way of keeping everyone in touch as well as seeing how much the children have grown or to see their latest handicraft projects. If I had multiple grandchildren living in distant cities, I would be holding weekly family hangouts!
I already hold frequent two-way video chats with my one daughter and one grand-daughter who live only a few miles from me by using Skype or Tango or Apple FaceTime. I love those chats and will continue with them. However, I have little need for multi-person chats, so I am not motivated to use Google+ Hangouts. Anyone with a larger family, however, can benefit from having multiple family members talking together with video. Try it. I bet you will love Google+ Hangouts.
A similar situation exists for any sort of group meeting where it is not easy for everyone to get together in person. Assuming that ten or fewer people need to meet and that these people are in different locations, a video meeting on Google+ simplifies the logistics for everyone involved.
The hardware and software required to join in Google+ hangouts is modest by today's standards. Almost all home computers sold in the past few years have enough memory and CPU power to participate. Obviously, a web cam and a microphone are required to use full functionality. Most Mac laptop computers and all iMacs include built-in web cams. Mac Minis and Mac Pro systems do not. Many Windows laptops and a few Windows desktop systems also include built-in web cams, and most have microphones.
If your computer does not have the required hardware, you can obtain a USB web cam for $40 or more from most any computer store. Microphones can be found for $5 or $10 although I find that quality varies widely. I have had better luck with USB microphones that typically cost $20 or so.
Whether you use it daily or not, a Google+ Hangout is a great way to expand the use of your computer and also a great way to chat with people. I'd suggest you try a Google+ Hangout to see if it meets your needs. To do so, go to http://plus.google.com.
I'll "see" you online sometime!
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