- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

It was in 1964, the year he was born, Philippe Schwartz told me the other day. AT&T, which once was a big deal in regular telephony, had demonstrated a Picturephone at the New York World’s Fair.

The Picturephone was a device that let you see the person you were calling. It was big and gangly and complicated - for its time. The economics never made sense. Only a handful ever got out into the market; one-time AT&T Chairman Robert E. Allen reportedly had one in his office as he ascended the Bell System’s ranks, but it didn’t get much beyond the confines of old Ma Bell.

Fast forward to 2008, and we all have webcams. I have one I need to send to my dad; it sells for about $130, I think, and is designed for Macs that don’t have built-in cameras, basically the Mac mini and the Mac Pro tower computer. In both cases, separate displays are required.

Mr. Schwartz is neither a historian nor a webcam salesman. He is, instead, chief executive of ooVoo, an online service (www.oovoo.com) that aims to bring videoconferencing to the masses, i.e., us. Slap the ooVoo software on your PC or Apple Mac (Linux users need not apply) and you can video-chat with as many as five other people if you pay for the service. Use the “free” version - banner ads help fund it - and you’re limited to a three-way conversation.

In look and feel, the ooVoo arrangement of video screens looks a bit like an old episode of “Nightline” or the video-chat view of Apple Computer’s iChat software. You can view the faces of your chat mates in an arc on the screen or in what I would call “Brady Bunch” mode: one large view and smaller video windows of the people who aren’t talking. The service hosts about 4 million video chats a month, Mr. Schwartz said.

Some of these displays are dependent upon the kind of broadband connection you have. In a video chat, Mr. Schwartz and Philip Robertson, another ooVoo official, suggested that a wired, high-speed Internet connection was best.

All fine and good, you’re thinking; it would be nice to have cross-platform video chats - unless Uncle Charlie gets on to talk (again) about his hernia surgery. But ooVoo isn’t aiming just for the sentimental set.

One push for the service will be in business and other for “premium” users: For $10 a month, you can store or stream up to 1,000 minutes of recorded video, record an unlimited number of video calls and send video e-mails up to five minutes in length. Ad-supported users get just one-minute video e-mails and no storage. The firm also will tack on unlimited phone calling in the United States and Canada to premium subscribers who pay an extra $15 per month. Of course, all these charges are on top of whatever you’re paying for broadband; dial-up Internet users (all six of you) need not apply.

In a Windows PC-based demo call with Mr. Schwartz, Mr. Robertson and a public relations minion from the ooVoo publicity agency, things went well, more or less. The video mostly was smooth and clear, and there were no audio hiccups at my end. There was a bit of audio feedback at the other end, which was fixed when I turned down my speaker volume.

Although I think the ooVoo software captured a still image of my fellow talkers, my attempts at doing a video recording of the session were unavailing. I could record the audio track but not the video. I was bummed, seeing my future as the Internet’s Anderson Cooper going down the tubes. The ooVoo PR person said the service will look into the failing.

For now, using the product as a means to create a record of a conversation or event might be dicey: I would hate to gamble a big business negotiation on this without a lot of testing. That said, there well may be potential in all of this.

What I like is the notion that someone is trying to create a communications service that truly could have some practical uses. Not every feature is working as nicely as I would like right now, and not every feature works on every platform - a promised “high-definition” video mode is Windows-only, for instance.

However, if ooVoo can let me chat with my boss across 8,000 miles or with my father in Manhattan, that’s a good thing. If I use the free service, so much the better.

What’s on your screen? E-mail Mark Kellner