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Business travel is a big part of many lawyers’ job descriptions. But it’s no secret that travel budgets have been put on a diet in the past couple of years — and aren’t set to get fatter anytime soon. Plus, with all the hassles associated with air travel, many lawyers are less than eager to spend much time zipping around the globe. The usual way to stay in touch, e-mail, has become spam-ridden and prone to virus and worm attacks. And last August’s attack of the “SoBig” worm, which crippled e-mail servers around the globe, was enough to make snail mail seem almost attractive again. Enter videoconferencing. Back in the immediate post-9/11 days, its boosters crowed about how crucial it would be in knitting together far-flung enterprises. We’d enter a Jetsonslike world in which people would just look at one another on nice, big, flat video screens. We wouldn’t have to bother with rigorous airport security checks, smoky rental cars, and jet lag. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? But what they didn’t mention was that it would be expensive — the best professional videoconferencing systems can easily run into six figures. And in most cases, you don’t need such a system. Recent technological advances, and inexpensive or even free software, have made staying in touch just by sitting at your PC more attainable — and, with the right tools, downright cheap. Here’s a primer for quick-and-dirty videoconferencing right at your desk. If you’re reasonably proficient with installing PC software and add-ons, then you can set this up yourself without much hand-holding. One warning: The quality won’t be as good as it would be with an expensive, full-fledged system in the CEO’s conference room; forget multiple cameras and perfectly tuned sound. And you’ll need the cooperation of your IT staff. But for quick chats with small groups, or one-on-one conversations, these setups work just fine. The most popular and low-cost way to conduct videoconferencing is via the Internet. It’s commonly dubbed videoconferencing over IP (for Internet Protocol). Software compresses video and sound data and zaps it over the Net, instead of transmitting it over dedicated high-speed telephone lines. Internet transmissions send the data in small “packets,” so there’s a slightly disconcerting lag time, usually a second or two, in the video. There are two steps to videoconferencing over IP: You’ll need the proper hardware and software. Then you’ll need cooperation from your IT staff to get people on the other end to use the same setup. Of course, you’ll need a fast computer to do videoconferencing over IP. For reasonably smooth, jerk-free videos, use a Pentium 4, or if you’re in the Macintosh minority, a G4 or G5 chip with a minimum 600-MHz clock speed. Your computer will also need the right ports at the back. Look for USB, USB2, or FireWire, more commonly dubbed IEEE 1394; the latter two transmit video and other data at high speeds. Connecting a camera via these ports will result in the best picture and sound quality. Picking the right camera depends on how fussy you are about what you see on your screen. It’s possible to use a standard digital camera, but they have more features and complexity than is needed for Web conferencing. Instead, check out dedicated webcams. Apple Computer Inc., a relative latecomer to do-it-yourself videoconferencing, sells the iSight, a nifty webcam that uses a fast FireWire connection and clips onto a flat screen at face level. The quality, using the computer maker’s software, is quite good, even if a big image takes up most of the screen. If you can live with grainier, rougher video images, a garden-variety USB webcam should be enough. At less than $100, they’re much cheaper than either the digital camcorder or the iSight. And most webcams, from such manufacturers as Creative Labs Inc. or Logitech Inc., can use the normal USB 1.1 port on your computer, so you won’t have to break open your computer to install extra ports. Camera placement can be tricky. Most webcams perch on a desk or above a computer monitor. And more often than not, to the people on the other end, it will seem as though you aren’t looking directly at them, because you’ll be looking at your monitor — it’s one of the unavoidable features of videoconferencing on the cheap. If your PC is running XP, the latest version of Microsoft Windows, the software that you need to transmit and receive video and audio already resides on your computer. The program, MS Messenger Version 6, is fairly rudimentary; video can be less than smooth and clear. But then again, the software is already paid for, and it works well enough for most people. Apple has released software that is tightly integrated with the computer maker’s operating system and the iSight webcam. The application iChat a/v provides clear, sharp, full-screen video and crisp audio over high-speed Internet connections. The only wrinkle is that Mac users need to make sure they’re using the latest revision of Apple’s OS X operating system, 10.3. For a platform-agnostic solution, Windows and Macintosh users can download Yahoo’s Super Webcam, an adjunct to the portal company’s popular instant-messaging service. Super Webcam shows video at 20 frames per second, which means a slightly-jerky-but-still-moving picture. However, the software stumbles sometimes when used behind fire walls. There’s one last step. For these cheap videoconferencing tools to work in the office, you’ll have to get the IT staff to buy into it. Here’s why: Transmitting video and audio over the corporate network places a heavier load on the computer network than, say, sending an Excel spreadsheet to a colleague via e-mail. Indeed, a network administrator probably will notice the extra activity emanating from a videoconferencer and come running to see what’s happening. Corporate fire walls could also keep incoming video transmissions from breaching the system’s defenses. So the IT people will have to make an exception for videoconferencing setups and open a small hole in the fire wall. Naturally, getting all the pieces to work together will take a little time and a lot of testing. But just think back to the last time you had to spend a snowed-in night in the business-class lounge. Jerky images or not, do-it-yourself videoconferencing begins to look a lot better. Anthony Paonita is executive editor of Corporate Counsel, an American Lawyer Media magazine, where this article appeared in the December 2003 issue.

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