BEFORE AND AFTER: New Skype software, combined with new Logitech Web cameras and drivers, a broadband connection, and an up-to-date Windows PC deliver higher quality video (as seen on the right side of this image). Image: Courtesy of Skype
Thanks to the rapid-fire growth of broadband network connectivity, video voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) services now give callers around the world the ability to gab away for no more than the cost of their monthly Internet service provider fee. Until now, though, the video capabilities have been little more than a novelty that tempts callers with grainy images of their friends and family that lack the ability to capture their movement with any fluidity.
But that could change as early as next month when Luxembourg–based Skype, a division of online auctioneer eBay, is set to unveil the latest version of its software, which is tuned to work with a new lineup of "high-quality video" Web cameras from Fremont, Calif.–based Logitech. The companies gave a preview Tuesday of what's to come at a New York City press conference, where they demonstrated their software and hardware working together to produce video VoIP that looks more like watching TV than grainy home movies.
This is no small feat, as the laundry list of requirements indicates. What do you need to take advantage of this latest offering? Skype 3.6 (coming in early to mid November), any of three new Logitech Web cameras introduced Tuesday, the latest version of Logitech's Web camera drivers, a bandwidth connection of at least 380 Kbps (kilobits per second) and a PC with at least one gigabyte of RAM and a dual-core, 2.0 GHz (gigahertz) or faster processor running Windows XP or Vista. The result will be a sharp video image resolution of 640 by 480 pixels at up to 30 fps (frames per second), up from Skype's previous capacity of 320 by 240–pixel resolution at no more than 15 fps.
The goal, the companies say, is to alleviate some of the frustrations that video VoIP users must contend with, in particular the choppy, pixilated images of loved ones that freeze and jump during VoIP conversations. The upgrades in software and camera equipment are designed to "make people feel like they're together during a conversation," even if they are separated by hundreds of miles, Don Albert, vice president and general manager of Skype North America said at the press conference.
Added Gina Clark, vice president and general manager of Logitech's Internet Communications business unit: "Our goal is to make lifelike video calls.''
Have an Apple? Sorry. You'll have to stay on the sidelines—at least for awhile. Albert said there was currently no plan to release a Mac version of Skype 3.6, but Logitech's Clark said she would be interested in exploring the new cameras' performance on Macs, even though most Macs now come with embedded Web cameras.
All three of Logitech's new Web cameras offer a glass lens made by Oberkochen, Germany–based optical lens maker Carl Zeiss. (Most Web cameras come with plastic lenses, but more expensive glass lenses produce higher quality images.) The cameras also include an autofocus feature that resolves images in less than three seconds and can handle close-ups up to about four inches (10 centimeters) from the lens. The price tag for the new Web cameras: $100 and up.
Skype, which earlier this week introduced a 3G Internet phone with built-in software, says that 25 percent of its 246 million users worldwide use their VoIP technology to make video calls to other Skype users. Although Skype has offered VoIP since 2003, it has offered video calls for only about two years. Interest in video VoIP is expected to grow, but it will only go as far as broadband connectivity can permeate. Logitech estimates that half of U.S. households currently have access to broadband.