Video Instant Messaging

Improvements in video instant messaging technologies over the last few years is enabling many groups to take advantage of inexpensive options for getting together face-to-face even when the individuals are miles and miles apart. Similarly, the rise in the popularity of instant messaging (IM) for quick chats means the development of instant messaging devices that allow the sender to transmit a message without being tied to a computer. Desktop videoconferencing is a great way for businesses to interact with employees in different branches or regions or with faraway clients. Utilizing videoconference software and services saves the business both time and travel expenses. Family members that live far apart from one another can find it very inexpensive to set up webcams (cameras attached to a computer) that allow them to see each other on their monitors. Online clubs can hold meetings over the internet by taking advantage of video instant messaging software. Just about anyone who needs or wants to network with someone else who is further away than next door can find it convenient to set up a personal videoconferencing workstation. As with so many other technologies in the past, the cost has come down as the demand has grown and the product has improved.

Large computer manufacturers helped drive the demand by integrating video technology into operating systems and designing hardware that included a webcam with the monitor. By designing an easy-to-use, click-of-the-button application, the learning curve for new users was small and soon the new webcam owners were bragging to friends and relatives about how cool it was to actually see and hear another person on their screens. Of course, the limitation was that the other person needed to have a webcam, too. The new users urged friends and relatives to join in the fun of live chats. Naturally, early systems had some bugs, but both time and innovation are improving the quality of the video instant messaging systems. More and more people are leaving behind dial-up service in favor of faster connections. Newer computers also provide faster processing speeds which help improve the quality of what is seen on the monitor. Other technologies are improving other instant messaging devices. Though these may or may not offer a video component, they are providing the user freedom from a workstation or a laptop. More and more executives are finding themselves lost without their PDAs (personal digital assistants). With these devices, often referred to as palmtops because they fit into the palm of one's hand, the busy executive is able to access her contacts database, appointment calendar, email, and the internet. Though the range of options varies according to the sophistication (and price) of the particular PDA, most come with a screen that is larger than that of a cell phone, a small keyboard, and perhaps a stylus. An important feature is the ability to sync the information from one's work computer to the PDA. Some PDAs are also cell phones, which means one less gadget for the busy executive to carry.

There are other instant messaging devices available on the market for those who don't need all the functions of a PDA (or who do not want to pay either the upfront or monthly service charges). Cell phones with internet capability often come with the ability to send and receive instant messages. So do some high-tech watches. Parents may be interested in giving their children a handheld, wireless device that lets the youngsters chat with friends without tying up the family computer. These devices, though wireless, need to be within so many feet of a base station in order to work properly. However, the range is usually enough that the kids have some mobility. Of course, the parents can place the base station in a convenient location so that they are able to more easily monitor the children's IM activity. Parents need to be diligent in protecting children from the dangers of IM while teaching them to be responsible in how they interact with friends. Children sometimes need to be reminded of Paul's words to them: "Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord" (Colossians 3:20).

Technology experts often speak in terms of latency rates. This is the lag time between when a word is spoken and when that word is received. Of course, in real face-to-face conversation (what experts call real time), there is virtually no lag time at all. On landlines, the latency rate is so low that it's not perceived and a landline phone conversation feels like it's taking place in real time even when it's not. Humans are pretty good at detecting lag times. In fact, the experts say that a latency rate of only one hundred milliseconds can be detected. The lag time can be higher than this for cell phones which is why callers sometimes hear the echoes of their own voices. When video is jerky, it's because of the latency rate which can be due to lack of bandwidth, a slow processor, a slow internet connection, inadequate software, or a combination of two or more of these factors. Again, all these factors are being addressed with new advances in technology and with the general population replacing dinosaur computers and dial-up with faster models and high speed internet connections. Some vendors provide free software then charge monthly fee depending on the particular package of services that is purchased. A free trial may be available. Infrequent users can find inexpensive options that do not require monthly contracts. Whether one needs to set up a conference between employees in separate locations, a meeting for an online club, or a family chat, video instant messaging can provide the solution. With so many instant messaging devices to choose from, a computer may not even be needed.

Online Photo Services

Many online photo services have appeared and expanded since digital cameras became more popular and affordable. These provide free image hosting -- a place where a person can share digital photos and videos. Online editing tools allow the customer to adjust less than perfect images. A great variety of photo gifts and accessories are also available. Free online photo album tools allow the photographer to arrange the images in an interesting format for viewing by select groups. Online communities form around photographers who are interested in a particular aspect or genre of photography.

The author of Ecclesiastes 1:8 proclaims, ...the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.. Photographers delight in the ease of producing great numbers of beautiful images. One of the most attractive features of these online services is their offer of free storage of photos and videos. Depending upon the number of images, a free online photo album may free up significant storage space on a person's hard drive. This also allows the photographer to share these images easily with others. Gone are the days when sharing of pictures meant having to make copies so that others could take them home to enjoy. Now, a photographer can control who gets to see them by assigning certain parameters to the online folder where they are stored. The images can be adjusted to eliminate undesirable features like 'red-eye', where the subject's eyes glow with reflected light. Online tools provide other editing features as well.

Various levels of sharing the photographs are allowed. Using e-mail invitations, the photographer can choose to let family and friends access the photographs, view slideshows and leave comments. They may also choose to order certain prints. Most sites do not insist that those who view the photos register at the site. This makes things much simpler for those who do not wish to register for reasons of security or convenience. Some may be reluctant to give out such information because they fear a deluge of spam will shortly follow. Most providers of online photo services have strict policies about not releasing the information to other sources, but it is convenient to just be able to view the photos without having to go through any registration hassles. Other groups can be specified to view the photos, without releasing permission to buy copies. These cannot print or save high resolution versions of the pictures without this permission. A user of the photo services can create multiple groups and share different folders of images as appropriate.

Some sites which offer online photo services also encourage the formation of groups of like-minded photographers. From pet-lovers to professional artists, there is a group for nearly every conceivable segment of photographic society. The pictures are usually protected from being reprinted, at least in a high resoution format. That way an individual is free to share his or her work without fear of people swiping it for their own portfolios. Most of these sites offer some type of contest to encourage continued photographic efforts in the specific area of interest. Prizes of photographic supplies may be awarded. Some contests are more like informal assignments, which participants engage in purely for the love of the hobby. A theme may be assigned for the week or month, and the results shared for all to enjoy. Most photo storage sites also offer a free online photo album for their customers. Notes can be added to explain each photograph. A variety of editing tools is available for the customization of these albums, ranging from adjusting the cropping of images to providing framing and decorative elements. Holiday backgrounds and images can further help to create a unique and interesting album. For those who desire a simplified approach, a variety of color background combinations provide other options. Interestingly, the photo albums can be made so that the pages appear to turn, much like they do when viewing a 'real' album.

Several of the photo services provide other features as well. Helpful article about photography offer tips to novices. Videos and 'how-to' tips are also part of these websites. Along with a free online photo album, storage sites may make a large number of photo-related gifts and accessories available for purchase. One site featured more than one hundred such items. The gifts ranged from keychains, travel mugs, coasters, magnets and ornaments to bibs, aprons, totes, towels, cutting boards, and clocks. Each item featured pictures of one's favorite person or pet. Calendars can also be constructed, with images selected and usually even photographed by the customer. Archival CDs and DVDs are also available to store treasured images.

Multiple quantities of high quality prints and cards are sold at discount rates. One note on this practice: although some sites feature unbelievably low prices for prints, be sure to test the quality of a site's services before committing the family Christmas card into their hands. Discount rates are attractive, but even some large, well-known establishments produced less than desirable results in terms of color, clarity and focus. In general, though, most sites have professional equipment and will give satisfactory results. Some Internet sites rate the services, cost and efficiency of various online photo services. Sites may rate everything from the ease of using image-editing features to the variety of print sizes and delivery options. Perusing these sites before making a choice can save the photographer far more than monetary discounts.

Customer service is sometimes an overlooked feature of companies which provide online photo services. Sometimes turnaround time is not a terribly important factor when compared to costs and results, but there are times (invitations to time-sensitive occasions like parties and weddings) when this could make a difference. Also, check the site's policies on delayed or lost images. Does the company pursue such claims, or is the customer left dangling? Finding a company which treats a customer's images with the same concern as they would their own work should not be too difficult, especially with the wealth of Internet information. Enjoy the technology that is so readily available. Whether stored on a hard drive or in a free online photo album, do not forget one of the most important aspects of photography -- sharing the images with others.

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