See Me, Hear Me

New Web conferencing services seem to pop up on an almost monthly basis these days, inspired perhaps by the global success of Skype on the one hand, but its failure to seize the business market opportunity on the other.

We look here at two that have in fact been around for a while—SightSpeed from SightSpeed Inc. and HearMe from AVM Software.

Both are fundamentally voice-and-video-conferencing/calling services that also offer instant messaging (IM). HearMe adds screen sharing capabilities. Sight Speed adds hosted video mail and in-call file sharing by e-mail.

SightSpeed, launched in 2003 and winner of several magazine awards, has two main offerings: SightSpeed Personal, a free “video chat” service, and the recently launched SightSpeed Business, a for-fee video conferencing service. (There is also a Plus version of Personal for $9.95 a month.)

Both services require downloading and installing a piece of client software on each user’s computer, although the company announced recently it was developing a no-download video chat “widget” for use at social networking sites, including Google’s yet-to-be-launched OpenSocial platform.

SightSpeed Business differs from Personal in both pricing and features. Personal delivers small pop-up ads that do not block the video windows and can be shut down immediately, and an ad panel at the bottom of the user interface that cannot be shut down. Business is free of advertising.

Additional features in Business include multi-party video conferencing (although Personal Plus does give you four-party video chatting), video call recording, in-call file sharing, multi-user licensing, management and reporting functions, and live technical support.

SightSpeed Business service is priced from $19.95 a month (or $189.95 if paid yearly) for a single seat, to $695.95 a month ($6,995.95 yearly) for a 50-user license.

We tested the Personal Plus service.

Download and installation of the client software was problem free. A wizard starts the first time you launch the program to help you set up camera, microphone and speakers. You select components from pull-down lists and let SightSpeed configure them automatically.

It worked flawlessly at one end of our test connection, not quite perfectly at the other, as we’ll see. It’s also possible to go into the Settings menu and reconfigure sound/video options and make fine adjustments.

The quarter-screen user interface is attractive and fairly intuitive, with a top-line menu bar and two layers of tabs for accessing the most-used functions—Video & Voice Calls, Video Mail & Blogs, Inbox, and Contacts in the top layer.

On launch, the program shows you the Video & Voice Calls tab with your webcam’s image taking up about a quarter of the space and a list of contacts beside it. When you make a two-way video call, your image shrinks to a thumbnail overlaid at the bottom of the other participant’s image.

The first time we tested a two-party video call, both ends could see the other’s video, but one could not hear any audio. This was resolved on subsequent attempts, possibly as a result of reconfiguring audio settings, but more likely because we shut down Skype before launching SightSpeed.

Launching a call is simple. Mousing over a contact’s name reveals icons for launching video, voice-only and chat sessions, and for recording calls.

Audio quality is solid—clear at both ends, with good volume. It’s wideband audio, like Skype, but to our ears did not deliver quite as “three-dimensional” a sound as Skype at its best.

In the normal screen setting, video windows during a two-way call are a good size—about 1/16th of my 20-inch screen. (It’s possible to hide the rest of the interface and show only the video.) With properly adjusted cameras, images were clear enough and big enough to show body language and facial expressions.

Motion was fairly smooth too, although some frames were clearly being dropped to maintain reasonable synchronization between audio and video.

On three-party calls, video window size dropped to a quarter that of the video in two-way calls, and quality degraded slightly. Audio quality degraded more noticeably, with some pops and drop-outs, though it was still acceptable.

(Note: We were using DSL connections with upwards of 2Mbps of throughput on both ends of the conference.)

There is an option to show the video display full-screen—all video windows are shown in a multi-party call. Video naturally becomes very pixilated and fuzzy, but it could be useful in some situations.

The video mail option simply automates the process of recording video with the webcam, then sending it to another SightSpeed user or to an e-mail box. The file sharing feature automates e-mailing a document to another user.

In multi-party calls, shared files—and chat messages—go out to all participants, so there’s no option to carry on a sidebar chat session while video conferencing.

HearMe, a division of online communications pioneer AVM Software, has also been around for a few years and has won some accolades from the trade media. It offers a business conferencing/calling service that includes limited screen/application sharing.

Unlike SightSpeed, it’s a browser-based application (currently requiring Microsoft Internet Explorer), although users do have to download and install a plugin to make it work.

Also unlike SightSpeed, it’s possible—precisely because it’s browser-based—to invite non-registered users into a conference. They of course have to download and install the plug-in as part of the process of responding to an invitation to their first HearMe meeting.

HearMe rents companies dedicated online “meeting rooms.” The rooms, each with a unique URL, can accommodate different numbers of people. Prices range from $29 a month (or $278 if paid yearly) for a five-person room, to $449 a month ($4,310 yearly) for a 150-person room. It’s of course possible to rent multiple rooms.

The company also provides a free one-time, 14-day trial of the service, which we used in testing.

Signing up for the service is relatively painless, although you do have to provide a credit card number to get the 14-day trial. Whatever companies like HearMe say, in our opinion this is unnecessary, and annoying. It’s hard not to think that they’re just hoping to get a month, or more, of fees should you forget to cancel.

HearMe’s user interface is not as friendly as SightSpeed’s. For example, when subscribers log in to the service, they see a text-only page with a list of the rooms to which they have access. When they click on one, a long and somewhat confusing room administration page pops up—again, all text.

An organizer can click the Send Invitations link on this page, which initiates sending an e-mail using his default e-mail client. The automatically created message contains a link to the HearMe room’s URL. Alternatively, he could copy and paste the room URL into an IM invitation, or use the Invite button in the room itself.

When recipients click the link in the invitation message, they go to a log-in page where they’re asked to enter name and password. Because both parties in our test were registered HearMe subscribers—HearMe administrators as it were—when we were behaving as participants rather than organizers, we tried to enter our HearMe account names and passwords.

This generated a mystifying error message. What the service really wanted was an attendee nickname, which could be made up on the spot (and then used in subsequent HearMe meetings) and a personal password.

The confusion was arguably a reflection of the testers’ reluctance to read instructions ahead of time, but the fact is, there are no instructions actually provided at this dialog, which there should be since many using it will be first-timers.

The organizer launches a meeting by clicking on a link in the room administration page. This takes you to a page with a single link to Launch Meeting, which in turn initiates a completely separate log-in procedure. You again have to enter the account name and password selected when signing up for the service.

This all seems a little clumsy. Plus, on one occasion, the application failed to launch the meeting on the first attempt, although clicking Try Again remedied the problem.

The meeting room itself features a bar across the top that displays participants’ video windows, a work area in the middle for displaying a chat text and/or shared document screens, a panel at right showing participants’ names and their connection status, and a chat-text entry window and button bar at the bottom.

A Settings & Preferences button on the bar gives participants access to configuration routines that semi-automatically set up audio and video components on their system.

Video windows are double or more the size they are in multi-party SightSpeed calls—which means it’s somewhat easier to see body language and facial expressions—but smaller than in two-way SightSpeed calls.

With HearMe, though, you can choose to display video in separate windows at several different sizes. It’s also possible to hide your own video window.

Video was marginally more pixilated at the standard size HearMe uses than in a standard SightSpeed multi-party video windows. Audio quality in test calls was solid, but again, not quite as good as Skype at its very best.

HearMe offers three alternatives for managing participants, selectable from a pop-up submenu on the button bar.

With Push To Talk, participants have to click and hold an icon button while speaking. With Voice Activated, the system detects who is speaking and automatically opens their audio channel. With Open Mic everybody is heard all the time, which may strain bandwidth capacity and reduce audio quality.

In more structured meetings, especially where using Push To Talk, participants can be required to click a “Raise hand” button and wait to be acknowledged by the organizer.

The application-document sharing function works well (although limited to Microsoft Office apps). Image resolution is good. There is some latency, naturally—it can take a couple of seconds for a shared screen to change on a participant’s computer. It’s also possible to share only one application so that the rest of the sharer’s screen is not visible to other participants.

This feature does have limitations. It’s possible for other participants besides the organizer to share their screens, but it’s not possible to give control of the sharer’s mouse or keyboard to another participant, as it is with Citrix’s GoToMeeting, for example.

Which one?
SightSpeed is generally more user friendly than HearMe, and audio/video quality may be marginally better—at least on two-way calls.

But HearMe offers more meeting management features, including screen/application sharing, which is definitely more useful than SightSpeed’s e-mail-based in-call file sharing.

While both offer pricing plans with unlimited meeting time, HearMe pricing appears lower. And its pricing model provides more flexibility since organizers can invite participants that are not already registered users.

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