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Cheap Video Conferencing for Small-to-Medium Sized Corps?

Cliff posted more than 10 years ago | from the your-picture-phone-is-ringing-Mr.-Spacely dept.

Linux Business 36

Jason W. asks: "I work for a medium sized company of about 75 employees. A while back I was asked by our CEO to look into a video conferencing solution. I didn't find much information about setting up a system in house except from Real Networks. The problem was, they wanted $10,000 just to start. We even had a sales visit from a consultant who laughed at us when we didn't want to spend $8-10,000. Like I said, we are a medium sized company, but did I mention we are privately owned? $10,000 is WAY to much for us to spend on what would be, new technology for us. I wanted to poll Slashdot readers, and see if they have any experience in this area. As for our needs, I know we would need to talk from Texas to Washington D.C, and to Virginia. Can we do it from our website? Do we have to have hardware 'stations' on each end? What are your thoughts?"

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first! (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#5853864)

post!

Icky but cheap... (2, Interesting)

nekoniku (183821) | more than 10 years ago | (#5853883)

if you're wintel-based, you could set up webcams and MS NetMeeting to accomplish some of this.

Re:Icky but cheap... (2, Interesting)

NanoGator (522640) | more than 10 years ago | (#5854084)

"if you're wintel-based, you could set up webcams and MS NetMeeting to accomplish some of this."

Play your cards right, and you can get a faster internet connection out of it too.

"Well, we have the cameras, but now we need many many megabits of bandwidth. The good news, though, is that we can still do it for half the price!"

Polycom (4, Informative)

altp (108775) | more than 10 years ago | (#5853895)

We use polycom [polycom.com] camera's here. They are a bit pricey, but do the job. The one advantage they have over the solutions we've tried is that they are self contained. No computer required.

The imaging quality on some of their lower end webcams are questionable though.

Re:Polycom (2, Interesting)

Mr.Phil (128836) | more than 10 years ago | (#5854731)

We use the Polycom products for providing Interactive TV (ITV) courses to the local school district. The schools use this to allow a class to be offered in another district if needed. We were using a Via (not VIA) product that Lucent discontinued after they bought Via. The Polycom products are very nice in that you can do IP or use leased line to make the calls and vary the channel bandwidth.

Lots of information on video teleconfrence can be found out by searching for ITV.

Re:Polycom (2, Interesting)

FattMattP (86246) | more than 10 years ago | (#5855185)

We use a lot of Polycom equipment where I work. Although the standalone units are expensive, there are smaller units that hookup to your computer called ViaVideo [polycom.com] . They work pretty well and just plug into a USB port. The software will let you do most of what a larger Polycom unit will do with regards to connecting to other Polycom stations and showing all the other people's cameras that you are connected to. I think it's about $500 or $600 per unit. The only negative is that it only supports IP whereas the dedicated Polycom units will handle IP or ISDN connections. I don't use one of these myself but a coworker down the hall does and he loves it.

Also, there's always MS Netmeeting and a cheap camera.

Webcams and net2phone (0)

justanyone (308934) | more than 10 years ago | (#5853899)

What about a MS Netmeeting or another product?

Also, what about just setting up a pair of webcams on both ends, with a normal telephone connection? this should be simple, relatively robust, etc.

Your costs would be bandwidth usage (significant, though someone else can estimate that for me), the webcams themselves (about $200 range for better-than-average versions, though someone can recommend which ones those are), the phone costs (already known).

That's it!
-- Kevin
http://justanyone.com

Dlink (3, Insightful)

austad (22163) | more than 10 years ago | (#5854109)

D-link makes a video conferencing device. No link now, but they reviewed it on Ars Technica awhile back. Go look, it's neat, and only $300 or so.

Polycom units work great, but they are expensive. Make sure you use QoS in your routers or you're going to have problems.

Re:Dlink (1)

AmateurCoder (574449) | more than 10 years ago | (#5854472)

Damn. You beat me to the punch. I was just looking at one of their video conference [dlink.com] the other day.

According to the sales literature it is a self contained unit with no need to connect to a computer (So sales guys might be able to set one up.) and costs about $270 [pcconnection.com] per unit

Re:QoS - A definate must (1)

velkro (11) | more than 11 years ago | (#5859305)

We have Polycom units (both the standalone units and the ViaVideo) at 6 or 7 sites, and QoS is a must if you're using IP.

We use them over an IPSec based VPN (H.323 is an open protocol, remember) for security reasons, and QoS everything as much as possible to give the higest priority to the Video Conference traffic. Before we implemented QoS, quality was pretty bad - and this was on fast lines (all lines were T1 or fibre).

QoS made the difference between a useable and unuseable video conferencing system.

Re:QoS - A definate must (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5866261)

QoS takes away from all other users in order to give to Video Conference thereby really pissing off all the other victims sharing the bandwidth.

Is it really worth doing?

This is a test (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#5854124)

I am an ANONYMOUS COWARD.

Check out the Access Grid (3, Interesting)

Shewmaker (28126) | more than 10 years ago | (#5854182)

You should check out the Access Grid [accessgrid.org] . It is flexible, powerful, and based on open standards and software. A full installation would be too pricey for you, but I know people run PIGs (Personal Interface to the Grid) on laptops with $30 USB webcams and $30 headsets. So you can start with simple netmeeting-style video conferencing, and if you feel the need you can then move on to a full AG node with dedicated audio and video machines and multiple projectors.

Note that the AG uses multicast, which your router or ISP may not support well. Also, there is a bit of a learning curve to put everything together. There are AG vendors if you want to buy a fully supported solution.

-Andrew

Dime a dozen. (1)

pmz (462998) | more than 10 years ago | (#5854256)

Perhaps not a dime, but there are literally dozens (if not hundreds) of collaboration-solution-spouting companies pushing their dubious products. Just try searching on Google for a while, and you'll see every flavor of collaboration snake oil imaginable.

Regardless, it appears video conferencing isn't all that bandwidth-intensive. Sun's SunForum prouct claims to require only 25Kbit/sec by default. I've never used it, but that's what their FAQ says. I'm sure having MPEG hardware doesn't hurt, either.

I haven't used NetMeeting, either. Does that work?

Calling All Starving Artists (4, Funny)

Strange Ranger (454494) | more than 10 years ago | (#5854520)

If you can draw really really fast while on the phone please contact Jason W. above.

Same Situation (2, Informative)

dman123 (115218) | more than 10 years ago | (#5854564)

Ok, I've been in the same situation. Here's the most important question...

What level of video/audio quality do you need?

If you need something that can pass for a standard TV broadcast instead of M-M-Max Head-Head--------room, you've got to go higher end with $$$ hardware on each end. It's more like a minimum of $10,000 for each end. If you can get away with NetMeeting, then go for it.

Other questions to consider...

Q: Do you need to have a lot of people in on a conversation at one end?
A: $$

Q: Do you need to talk to customers?
A: One sale might make up for the $$$ you spend for a high end solution.

Q: Can you get away with just using the speakerphone?
A: Major savings if you can. Just send your PowerPoints or whatever beforehand and then discuss a few hours later after a quick review.

Q: Will you save $$$ on not having to fly around the country and meet face to face?
A: ?

You need to further define your needs. I am guessing that you told the consultant. If so, the laughing may have been justified.

Lotus Sametime (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#5854699)

http://www.lotus.com/sametime

or for those who enjoy clicking and hate cutting & pasting, Lotus Sametime [lotus.com] .

It does everything you want, and more. Pricing is reasonable.

Open H323 Solution (2, Interesting)

gadwale (46632) | more than 10 years ago | (#5854747)


All these comments and not one FOSS reference?

Here is a duct tape and scripting solution:

Get the software at Open H323 [openh323.org] .

Setup a dedicated MCU server using the OpenMCU conference server (also on above site). Without an MCU server, you can only have one-on-one video conferences. The MCU server will handle multiple participant video conferences as well as multiple rooms for simultaneous but separate conferences.

Use OpenPhone (also at above site) as the conferencing software. Since this is all standards based, the OpenMCU server should also support Netmeeting, Gnomemeeting etc.

This is Slashdot.. so all the advice is gratis but unreliable! Let us know how it works out!

Adi Gadwale.

PS. I have not been able to get this to work for even a 2 person call - Only one of the parties can hear the audio stream.

Re:Open H323 Solution (1)

paranor (672183) | more than 11 years ago | (#5919441)

I can't seem to get to the www.openh323.org web site. Do you happen to know what's up? Their stuff sounded very interesting. Especially the MCU. We need to change ours out. thanks

Me too / Firewall issue (1)

heikkile (111814) | more than 10 years ago | (#5854830)

I am in a similar position, except that our company is smaller, and the budget as well. The Windows users in our place have cast their eyes on NetMeeting, and it seems like there could be compatible Linux alternatives for the rest of us. As the security guy I need to make it work through our firewall (nat), and has turned out to be rather painful. Anyone know good pointers to a way to get all that working? Thanks in advance.

Re:Me too / Firewall issue (1)

chepati (220147) | more than 10 years ago | (#5855475)

If you want to remain compatible with your windows netmeeting using co-workers, try gnomemeeting [gnomemeeting.org] .

Then to answer your nat/firewall question, consult this [gnomemeeting.org] from the gnomemeeting FAQ. (NOTE: this might give you hints regarding netmeeting behind a firewall as well).

Hope this helps.
chepati

Re:Me too / Firewall issue (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5860717)

Buy yourself a decent router that allows VPN thru NAT. For example - the Draytek Vigor series.... http://www.draytek.co.uk (£140 incl VAT in UK for Vigor 2200We)

There's a nice VPN tutorial onsite showing how to set up VPN between remote offices. Once you have the IP connection between the 2 offices - the software used is immaterial - take your pick - windows or linux based.

look at www.webcamnow.com (1)

renehollan (138013) | more than 10 years ago | (#5854967)

They have a "chat 'n watch" site (essentially a reflector) which coordinates and rebroadcasts feeds frem webcams and chat clients -- including, I think voice chat. It's all free for the 6 frame a minute update, and something like US$10/month for 60 frame/minute (one frame a second) update.

Bewarned that they have a "family" and "uncensored" section -- the latter generally being exhibitionist porn and voyeurism (and probably subsidizing the former).

I'm sure you could roll your own along those lines, and use what they've done as a guide.

Sure, it'll be a "baling wire and bubble gum" hack, but you want something cheap, right? Presumably for inter-remote-office communication, this might be good enough.

I don't know if they'd license their existing software, but the nice thing about it is that, client side, it runs in a browser.

ICU (2, Informative)

zogger (617870) | more than 10 years ago | (#5855921)

I used to video conference all the time with my brother, and this was years ago. On his end he had a pc with a video tv capture card and a cable connection and his regular plain vanilla video camera, on my end I had a cheap serial port web cam and a normal mac tower on dialup. Hmm, I think at the time his box was a 266 with 128 megs ram, I had a 180 with 64 megs. It worked great, he said on his side it was perfectly clear, on my side the frame rate was never high enough for full motion video but fun enough to use, like a series of fast stills. The audio was fine most of the time, and it had a text/chat you could use when it wasn't fine. My cam fried so I don't use it any more. My connection via modem then was dismal, I really think that was the bottleneck of most importance.

I imagine that tech has gotten a lot cheaper and better by now,computers are sure faster so that will help, and there are open source equivalents listed I see. Biggest deal is just the bandwith it seems, the camera/audio/video part is "just there",plug it in and stuff, any computer store has that jazz on the shelf now. I bet you could pull off a basic rig for 200 clams a station. Maybe, just guessing, but 5 years ago my cam was almost 300$, it has GOT to be cheaper and better by now.

Unless you want 50 inch hdtv in sensurround and smell-0-vision, no idea what that costs, but stare at a face on the screen in a window and talk, it's just there.

What we did ... (1)

Abm0raz (668337) | more than 10 years ago | (#5856129)

We're a company of 500+ scattered from Florida to Maine and based in PA. We used a MS Netmeeting server in our VPN. Surprisingly, it runs well on a crappy machine (P2 333 w/256 ram). We put a similar machine in each office and attached a camera to it. We use a spider phone at the same time for audio.

You could skip the whole server part and just do direct IP connections if you wanted. A bit more difficult for the lay user, but highly effective, and cheaper.

NetMeeting (1)

Wesley Felter (138342) | more than 10 years ago | (#5856566)

No wonder Real couldn't help you; they don't make videoconferencing stuff.

Assuming you already have a fast intranet connecting your sites, just use NetMeeting. If you want higher quality, skip the cheapo USB cameras and get an NTSC capture card and a pan-tilt-zoom camera.

Re:NetMeeting (1)

DarkKnightRadick (268025) | more than 10 years ago | (#5857107)

Or he could use Gnomemeeting [gnomemeeting.org] if the comp is running Linux.

Rent (1)

Zeni (52928) | more than 10 years ago | (#5857272)

Your best bet is to rent the equipment and/or the idsn lines/ meeting space. The real cost is the isdn lines. (Yes you can use IP, but don't count on using your T1 for email, web, irc, etc while video conferencing. And from what I've seen most people use isdn.) IIRC ATT charges 54 cents a minute per line. Say you have a tipical conference, good quality video and audio- 3 pairs of isdn lines. For one hour, your isdn costs are almost $200. That doesn't even include the bridging service charges. Which you will need especially if the conference is international.

Figure at least $200 a/day to rent a polycom unit. That is supplying your own isdn lines. Most A/V rental houses have a 3 or 4 day week. ($600 - $800 for 7 days.) At my old job we charged $250 an hour with a 2 hour minimum for using our in house isdn lines, polycom unit, TV, conference room.

Video conferencing can be a HUGE headache. I've done way too many of them. :-) Don't wait for the last minute to organize the conference. Waaaay too many people with out isdn lines call 3 days before looking for a unit and they haven't even called for isdn istallation. It's not going to happen.

Video Conferencing (1)

digitaltraveller (167469) | more than 11 years ago | (#5859121)

I don't know how much it costs, but the Polycom system works pretty well.
The biggest issue I have is that often in larger meetings, the remote camera is so zoomed out to get everyone in the shot that it's like looking through a telescope. I think there is a way to control the remote camera, but it's almost never done, especially if you have more then 2 parties videoconferenced in. (Who gets to control the camera?)
Ideally you want to spend money on having extra cameras (a zoomed out one for everyone, and another one for single-person shots that can rove around as people speak.
We have another video-conferencing system built entirely on free software. It basically does this. Unfortunately, it's in another building and I don't use it often so I can't give you the details. It shouldn't be hard to hack together if you do the research. Try gnomemeeting to start with.

Axis Cams (1)

MrPotatoeHead (136285) | more than 11 years ago | (#5859712)

we use axis [axis.com] 2130 cams for our projects, and for the most part they do great with something like 100kbs bandwidth. granted they're somewhere in the four figures... ($1200 for ours b/c its PTZ) but its good enough quality that you can see individual's eye movements at a decent 15-20fps over business DSL lines. and the PTZ lets you remotely putz with what you want to look at.. granted there's no audio, but any midsize company can easily get their hands on a decent speakerphone setup.

anyway, my two bits.

You want this (1)

carpediem55 (157989) | more than 11 years ago | (#5859950)

http://www.dlink.com/products/multimedia/dvc1000/ and a tv, and a broadband internet connection.

Cheap Video Conferencing How-to.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5860775)

You need the following:-

1) DSL connections at each end.
Static IP addresses are preferable - although if you take the dynamic IP option - make sure your routers support automatic dyndns updating (http://www.dyndns.org). Draytek routers are a good example of kit that does this.

2) Make sure the routers you buy at each end are capable of VPN pass-thru NAT, and just as importantly that they support all of the current VPN protocols (too many to list now and I can't remember them ;-)). Again - draytek is a good call.

3) Follow the VPN setup howto at http://www.draytek.co.uk - to configure your routers

4) Buy some reasonable web-cams. (I bought a couple of Logitech wireless quickcams) - cheap enough (not on company budget) and the quality is reasonable (but this is subjective)

5) Choose your OS and hence your video-conferencing tool:- gnomemeeting (linux) or NetMeeting(Windows). But bear in mind that your choice of (4) will constrain your OS choice. (Logitech don't support Linux and don't bother with their tech support ;-( I asked for tech specs and offered to write the drivers - no joy.)

6) Err..thats it.

Total cost (assuming you have PCs either end):
£300 for both cameras
£310 for both routers
and then add on your monthly DSL subscription costs.

Of course - you can then go one step further - and buy a couple of Cisco IP phones, subscribe to a couple of VoIP call routing companies - and then claw back some of the above outlay over time...with the cheaper phone calls you'll be making.

BTW - I don't work for or have any relationship with draytek - but I recently bought a couple (Vigor 2200We and Vigor 2600W) because I work in Luxembourg but family is in UK. And the videoconferencing works a treat.... ;-)

try reality fusion teamview (1)

tcak (513301) | more than 11 years ago | (#5861008)

I am also in a similar situation where I have to find a videoconferencing solution. If you are looking for a very affordable multiparty Windows-based ASP solution, you could try Reality Fusion [realityfusion.com] . The subscription is $19.95 per month.

The UI is pretty impressive. In terms of videoconferencing usability, I feel that RealityFusion's TeamView client application beats MS NetMeeting or Yahoo! Messenger. However Reality Fusion does not sell the server software though.

Another solution you could look at is SmileTiger Software [smiletiger.com] . The company offers the iTalkAnywhere ASP Service and WebPresentation Server.

Both products mentioned above support Application Sharing. Hope these information helps.

Re:try reality fusion teamview (1)

tcak (513301) | more than 11 years ago | (#5861057)

If you are scouting for a non-PC based solution, you could try Innomedia's IP VideoPhone [innomedia.com] . It costs $US1,299.95, which is much cheaper than Polycom solutions. It supports the standard H.323 protocol, which means it should be able to talk to Polycom devices and MS NetMeeting.

Thanks! (0)

jasonsfa98 (648370) | more than 11 years ago | (#5861360)

Thanks for all the replies guys. The DLink solution looks really cool.

CUSeeMe and Communique (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5862865)

White Pine Software (or whatever their name is now) sells a reflector server based video conferencing package called CUSeeMe. This has the benefit that adding multiple users results in only a slightly larger amount of bandwidth to each of the users in the conference.

MDL Corporation (the place I work for) sells a point to point (can include multiple points) video conferencing package called Communique!. No server is required, though the bandwidth increases with the addition of each user in the conference.

With either system you can dial up or down the amount of network bandwidth required, enable or disable video and audio, share white boards, etc. With Communique! you can enable or disable audio and video on a per person basis as well.

AFAIK, CUSeeMe is supported on several Unix platforms and Windows. Communique! is supported on IRIX, Solaris, AIX, HPUX and Windows.

Bandwidth requirements are typically a minimum of 32K bps (bits per second) for minimal audio/not much if any video; e.g., 160x120 at 2-4 fps, crappy audio. If you have at least 128K bps you can start getting faster/better video, better sound.

Realistically, the best way to ensure a good video conferencing experience is to use a good full duplex speaker phone system and use the good old telephone system to handle the audio. Use one of these video conferencing systems to handle video and data collaboration. You easily will get more frustrated if you can't talk than if your video isn't working.

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