VoIP was supposed to bring cheap and easy videophones and video-conferencing to the masses. Webcams are all but free, and TV shows love to tease us with full-screen, full-color, perfect video calls. If you've tried it yourself, you know the reality isn't quite so pretty. You get a tiny little screen that is updated every few seconds, and the audio isn't even close to being synchronized. In fact it's often just as herky-jerky as the video. So we're not quite to the point of having big-screen-television-perfect videophony yet. But with a bit of luck you can make it work acceptably well.
There are a surprising number of free IP-based video calling services, mobile 3G shows a lot of promise, and we'll also take a look at getting video to work on your Asterisk-based iPBX.
As usual, Skype makes it easy and pretty good. Yes, they're a closed network. Yes, Windows clients get the most love and attention. But they're supporting Linux and Mac OS X too, so that covers the main three. Skype offers two quality levels, standard and high-quality. "Standard" maxes out at 320X240 pixels at 15 frames per second (fps). "High quality" delivers 640x480 pixels at up to 30 fps. Movies run at 24 fps, so 30 fps ought to be pretty smooth. Of course in the real world, movies don't have the long bumpy roads to travel that streaming audio and video do. They don't get caught in network congestion, mis-configured routers, queues, or bogged down by old feeble computers. But still, Skype does a good job.
The high quality video has some stiff hardware requirements. It requires one of the three Logitech webcams customized for Skype. Your PC needs a dual-core processor, and broadband Internet that supports at least 384 kbps both ways. That's 384 kbps just for your video calls; if you're sharing an Internet connection or running other Web applications you'll need more. Having at least a gigabyte of RAM (for normal systems, not Windows Vista, which should have twice that much) and a good-quality video card will help too.
Skype is free for personal peer calls. They also offer a range of paid services, but no video conferencing yet.
SightSpeed offers high-quality video calling, plus videoconferencing, VoIP, and instant messaging for Mac and Windows (Hint: It's a short leap from Mac to Linux/Unix/BSD, folks). Their free services include video and voice calls, instant messaging, and video mail. Videoconferencing for up to four locations, call recording, video exports, and other features are available for a monthly subscription. It's a good-quality, easy-to-use service. Read See Me, Hear Me for an in-depth review.
3G mobile video
If you think it's bad now, the way some people can't go anywhere without being glued to a cell phone and go through life oblivious to their surroundings and bumping into things, wait until 3G mobile video becomes commonplace. This has some real potential because it supports such nice fat bandwidthas much as 5 to 10 Mbps. 3G uptake in the U.S. (like everything else) has been slow. In fact high-end multimedia phones don't do well here at allsomething like 6 percent of mobile phones sold in the U.S. are smart phones. But in other countries such as Japan, Italy, and the United Kingdom, 2050 percent of mobile phone users are on 3G, and a higher percentage of users go for the high-end phones. Take look at 3G.co.uk to see a sampling of the newest 3G phones. You might also notice that a lot of them are not available in the U.S.
3G mobile video isn't very widespread anywhere yet, but it's just a matter of time. Though I do wonder what US service providers are going to offerit seems they are more interested in turning our mobile phones into little tiny TV sets and feeding us all manner of "content" instead.
Asterisk-based VoIP Servers
Asterisk's support for video is immature and basic, but you can get it working without too much sweat. There is no transcoding or codec negotiation, so the trick to getting it to work is to hard-code your endpoints to use the same codecs. Asterisk supports only H.263 and H.264; it supports H.261 in passthrough only. There are a number of softphones that work well with Asterisk; CounterPath's X-Lite and EyeBeam are the best. Asterisk video is a good starting point, and the Asterisk-video mailing list is a great source of help.
There are also a growing number of hardphones with built-in video. The Grandstream GXV-3000 H.264 SIP video hardphone is one example. It comes with a sleek, thin 5.6" TFT color display, built-in VGA camera, optical and digital zoom, and auto-focus and exposure. You can plug in a headset for privacy. This is a nice phone that takes a sizable load away from your PC and delivers good call quality.
Thanks to the VoIP revolution, videophones are coming, little by little. It never would have happened with the old traditional phone networks, so keep that in mind the next time you're feeling a bit impatient.