We have two support centers 20 miles apart. We'd like a telepresence type setup, but we have a limited budget at the moment. We do have spare computers, two large LCDs screens, and a 10Gb backbone. All we need to figure out is what kind of a camera, audio, and software to use. Any cheap ideas?
At the end, you'll find out that $1,000 for even a two-site video-conferencing solution is really tough to accomplish as you'll spend much $ on hardware/software costs, as well as man-hours to plan, deploy and maintain a feasible solution. Here are some options that might give you a better view of where things are on videoconferencing (per category) - If I missed a good one, please let me know (probably did).
Polycom PVXhas a software solution (windows only). With some creativity, a good camera and some tweaks to a system you can probably find what you're looking for with the PVX H.323 protocol video conferencing solution. Point to point communication through IP or H.323 extension/through gatekeeper or not (software is about $150):http://www.polycom.com/products/telepresence_video/video_conference_systems/personal_systems/pvx.html
xMeetingXMeeting is a SIP and H.323 compliant and Open Source videoconferencing client for Mac OS X (10.4 and later only). It has it's limits, but it is a solution that needs not authentication of any kind (IP or H.323 extension through or without a gatekeeper) http://xmeeting.sourceforge.net/pages/xmeeting_screenshots.php
VMukti(I haven't used this, but sounds promising) VMukti is creator of leading Asterisk/ Yate enabled p2p call center and video conferencing applications for Web / PSTN. These serverless broadband ready applications enable OS community to save 90% on capital & operating costs over proprietary software: http://sourceforge.net/projects/vmukti
High-end VC Infrastructure:
Telepresence is something that is primarily supported by these kind of high-end products, that's why they're so expensive. Here's the link of a VC end-point vendor I've dealt with H323.tv before and they seem pretty responsive, plus have great prices for Polycom, Tandberg, Lifesize or Sony compared to manufacturer's retail prices - even with Educational Discounts (They provide with maintenance/warranty contracts for New and Used equipment):
Consumer-based optionsI guess anything is possible if you put your mind into it, but remember these are all based on proprietary connection protocols:
Last year I had the same project, linking sites in MI and CA.
I experimented with a few open source & free apps and settled on MS Messenger (Live, whatever they're calling it now) purely because it handled fullscreen very well and gave the best picture at the time. Setup was a couple of widescreen LCDs and two $150 Logitech webcams.
For audio, we splurged on polycom conference phones. I suppose that with 10gb to throw around, you could use it for audio, as well. I took audio out of the data equation because we only had T1s, and I had visions of audio stuttering because a couple of people stood up and moved around.
I should probably mention it was a raging success.
There are a variety of consumer level solutions for this, depending on your budget.
Get two good speakerphones for the audio conferencing and use them rather than a computer setup. That way when (not if) the computer/video goes down you don't have to drop the whole meeting. Another reason to go with regular teleconferencing is that most of these good phones have the built in echo cancellation that the computer software often does a poor job of handling.
You can get $100 video broadcast boxes, such as Slingbox or Hava and a consumer grade video camera (cheap $100 device). Webcams may be acceptable, but there's a world of difference between an expensive webcam and a real video camera - latency and lag are going to be your biggest problems. A good realtime video encoder is going to do much better than a computer and webcam combination. Beyond that, basic photographic principles - bigger glass (lens) and bigger sensor = better image - even cheap video cameras will have better rendering than webcams.
Use the computer on the other end to catch the video sent from the video broadcaster. Eliminate the computer with a slingcatcher or another media receiver for the better hands-off video conferencing.
Downside is that you've got 5 devices on each end to deal with - phone, camera, encoder, PC, monitor. The big advantage of going with a polycom or similar device is that it's essentially all in one - and even controls the TV or monitor it's attached to.
If you set up a fast VPN between the two locations and put the cameras on the same subnet, in the case of the Hava appliance, you can get the nearly dvd quality mpeg2 video over the line. If they aren't on the same subnet it reverts to the 320x240 300kbps mpeg4 video - good enough, but if you've got a fast line it could be better.
Note that most of these consumer grade streaming encoders are meant for TV and other broadcast sources, which means they focus more on quality than latency. This may be an issue if your only purpose is to look the other person in the face while talking, but if a large part of the reasoning is to be able to view whiteboard stuff, physical objects, etc then this isn't an issue. Also most of these devices have a variety of inputs, so you could have two streamers on one end and one computers to receive them both on the other end and transmit presentations, or a second view for significantly cheaper than a similar setup with a 'real' telepresence system.
Microsoft Roundtable would be nice (not quite sure if it's for general sale yet?) but that would be more like 10k for two end-points I guess (the device is about 3k which is cheap for these kind of things). A random clickable review for convenience.
Getting face-to-face with two computers is easy, get a good fairly expensive web cam and you're set. But linking more than one person per location is harder - the camera needs to be up to spec to deal with a bigger room and the often poor lighting. The microphone(s) are even more important to get everyone's voice through.
I've been doing some research and found this site on making HD video an option.
I like the idea of using speaker phones because we have plenty of those.
UPDATE: I ended up buying a Blackmagic Design Intensity Pro, a Kodak Zx1 HD Pocket Video Camera, and a 5VDC power adapter, and it works great with the AccessGrid HD software. The video quality isn't the world's greatest, but it's better than what is possible on a webcam and can be improved by buying a better video camera in the future.
I originally bought a Flip Ultra HD, but it doesn't support live video preview through its HDMI connection. It also has a power save feature I couldn't get around and didn't have the AC adapter option.