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The Bad Old Days
Once webcams were a novelty. They didn't work very well, the bandwidth available to most users was minimal, and the resolution was so low that people looked like zombies. This has all changed with innovations in technology, and webcams have gone from a novelty to a standard addition to any modern PC. Most laptops come equipped with a built-in webcam and microphone, and if you buy a pre-built PC you will often get a mic and cam as part of the package. The question becomes: "Now that they work, what do I use them for?"
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The Obvious: Streaming
From the beginning, there was an obvious use for webcams. No, not that one. The use was putting on web performances of any kind. Early webcam sites were awful as far as implementation and performance went, but the concept was there. People created accounts and would set up what we would now call a live stream with a chat box thrown in. Frame rates were so low that it was almost pointless, but people were still fascinated with the notion of 'live' interaction.
Now, with all the innovations, streaming live has become big business. Sites like Stickam and Ustream allow you to stream shows live to millions of viewers, who get an interface where they can follow your show, chat, and be notified via email or instant messenger when you go live. Internet personalities like Chris Pirillo from Lockergnome and Kevin Rose from Digg have used Ustream to gather massive amounts of attention and fans, which in turn has led to revenue. And the great thing about most sites like this is that not only is their service free, but you can imbed their streams into your own sites, which means instant syndication of your show to wherever you can imbed some HTML.
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The Standard: Video Sharing
Who hasn't heard of YouTube? The odds are, if you are online enough to be reading this, you have used YouTube, and making videos for sites like YouTube is one of the uses of webcams that have only become possible with modern technology. Because of high resolution cams and hardware and software breakthroughs in light-compensation, modern webcams are capable of making quality videos that would have been the envy of any movie producer 20 years ago.
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The Cutting Edge: Video Blogging and Microblogging
With the recent boom in web 2.0 and social media technologies, video blogging and microblogging have become commonplace. Sites like Seesmic and 12seconds combine the brevity of services like Twitter with video and audio, allowing for ongoing conversations and interaction on a level above and beyond what YouTube can allow for. The problem with having conversations on video-sharing sites is that you can just go on forever, while video-blogging and microblogging forces people to be brief and to the point, allowing for far more give and take. YouTube can seem like a monologue, while services like 12seconds seem like true dialogue.
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The Practical Side: Video-Phone
Skype and other digital phone services now integrate video-phone protocols over their voice-over-internet service. This means that you can integrate your webcam into your digital phone use, allowing for video conference calling and the ability to truly have virtual business meetings that we have been promised in movies for years. Because of the high-bandwidth capabilities of VoIP, resolutions up to true high-definition are possible (my Skype-capable cam video-phones in full 960x720 and is as smooth as can be) and the audio compression over the digital line is mostly crisp and clear.
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Just Plain Fun: Video Commenting
A very recent use of services like Seesmic has been to include video comments in blogs. SU Comments and other blogs that love to be at the cutting edge of technology have found a way to fuse the lively conversation of the blogosphere with the immediacy of video in a different way from the streaming technique utilized by others. Video commenting promises to take hold on review sites as well, allowing people to truly see and hear what is good or bad about products and services.
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The world of online interaction has left the geek subculture and gone mainstream, and part of that is the ease and immediacy of video and audio possible through webcams. This article just touches the tip of the iceberg of what is now available, and these are only five of the most common and exciting of uses.
So fire up that webcam and get online...now you know what you are missing!
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