Helping Military families to communicate
with each other when they're far apart
(and other topics of interest to the Military)
Many members of our military are stationed far away from their loved ones. We have decided that one way we can support them is to help raise their awareness levels about some options they have for communicating with each other by audio and/or video over the internet. The software to do it is free. The hardware needed is pretty cheap (we don't sell it, but we can make some suggestions on what to get). In fact you won't need any special hardware at all if you already own a camcorder that can plug into your PC through a USB port.
Many military families use e-mail to communicate with loved ones far away. However, why should they limit themselves to boring e-mails when they can have live audio and/or video conversations over the internet with no long-distance charges? We do this ourselves with friends and family in Indiana. We have also done it between Ohio and California. It works so well that we wanted to do what we could to raise awareness levels among military families about this technology. I have personally used the audio software to carry on a live conversation with someone in Australia from here in Ohio. Some of the free software below allows live audio and/or video communications. Others allow the audio/video to be sent as e-mail attachments.
AOL Instant Messenger (Free version) (more info) Live voice conversations with one other person at a time, Send/receive files and Instant text Messages. This one does not have a video capability.
Real-time Voice and/or Video conversations with one other person, Remote Assistance (others can configure and trouble-shoot your PC for you remotely), Send/receive files and Instant text Messages. This one seems to be the most compatible with all Windows operating systems. However, it produces a very small video image.
Real-time Voice and/or Video conversations, Send/receive files and Instant text Messages. Based on our experiences, this one delivers the largest video images (3 sizes to choose from) and the best video quality of all the software packages. It works best with sound cards that have full-duplex capabilities. If you can't get this software to work, try the Microsoft Messenger software above instead. Click on this link for some tips on downloading, installing, configuring and using NetMeeting.
Converts .wav sound files to RealAudio (.ra) file. Converts live speech from your PC microphone into RealAudio file (.ra files can be sent as an e-mail attachments).
Converts .avi and .mov to RealVideo (.rm) file. Converts live speech from your PC microphone, and live video from your PC camera to RealVideo file. The files this software creates can be way too large to send as e-mail attachments. Generally speaking if you keep the file size to below 1-meg, you can send it by e-mail. However, a 1-meg video file is normally less than a minute long. If you have a much larger file you've created, you have a few options for sending it through the internet to someone else.
Put it onto the internet where it can be downloaded.
Use the file transfer features of AOL Instant Messenger, Microsoft Messenger or Microsoft NetMeeting to send it (similar to FTP but easier to use).
- You may be able to use your video camera (camcorder) to send both audio and video. If your camcorder can plug into a USB port on your PC (most newer ones can), you don't need to purchase a webcam or a microphone. You already have both with your camcorder.
- If you don't have a USB enabled camcorder, you'll need a $15-20 PC microphone for the audio available at computer stores. We used to recommend the Labtec Verse 514, but it appears that it's difficult to find now. Just go to your local electronics store and ask for their recommendation. Here are some things to consider when making a microphone purchase:
- It should have an on-off switch.
- If you want to have private conversations that won't get broadcasted over the speakers, consider a headset unit instead of a desktop unit.
- If you don't have a USB enabled camcorder, you'll need a $50-60 webcam camera for the video (if you want to have live video conversations) also available at computer stores. We used to recommend the Creative model PD1030, but it's hard to find now. Again, contact your local electronics store and ask them for their recommendation. You can use the specs for this Creative webcam as a guide for what to purchase. You don't need to spend $100 to get a decent webcam. You should be able to find a fairly good quality one for less than $60. Some computer stores have the webcam's hooked up to computers in the store so you can see what the picture quality will be like before you buy it. Keep in mind though, that the internet connection speeds at both ends and everywhere in between will have a significant impact on the video and sound quality. I have found that within the continental United States, both video and sound quality are fairly good if both parties have high speed internet connections like cable or DSL.
- an internet connection. High speed access is best, but a dial-up modem works just fine in most cases, even for live video. However, if you are using a dial-up modem connection, expect about a 40-50% reduction in the video quality. We have a high-speed Road Runner connection, but one of the folks we have live audio/video conversations has a slow modem connection and it still works OK.
How businesses can help military families
If you own a business, please consider setting up some of your PC's with this software/hardware in your building to be used by military families to communicate with their loved ones. Some of them can't afford a PC or an internet connection. By making this available to them for free, after hours if you have to, you may help some of these families ease the burden of being so far away from each other for such long periods of time.
If you are a hospital, consider putting high-speed internet connections into the birthing rooms so family members (i.e. spouses) far away can see and hear what's going on live. For instance, if a woman is giving birth and her husband is thousands of miles away serving in the military, he can watch and see the baby as he/she's being born live through the internet. The webcam can be placed at a location in the room so that the images taken will be discrete. If he's in another country outside of the USA, he may not be able to use two-way communications software like the one's we talk about on this web page (because of firewall security issues). However, it may be possible to set up a password protected live webcam from the hospital room that will at least allow him to see frequently updated still images.
Free Live technical help on-line
Sometimes we are on-line using Microsoft Messenger. If you have MS Messenger installed on your PC and want help from us live, we are happy to give it to military families and their families. We aren't on-line that often, but if you logon and look for us, feel free to contact us when you do find us on-line. Our MS Messenger e-mail address appears below.
Click here for other links of interest to the Military and their families
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