The multimedia aspect of computing has taken off like never before. Online video has taken off thanks to the spread of broadband internet access and sites like Youtube. People are now communicating visually over the internet. Webcams play an important role in this whole thing. If you have a webcam, you have a tool which allows you to put your own video up on the internet or simply to chat with friends and family.

On that note, I thought I would outline a list of things you can do with your webcam. Considering what you can do with it, they are a good buy. Most webcams range anywhere from around $50 to up to $100. I have two Microsoft webcams for my desktop machines. My notebook computer has one built right into the top of the screen. They really are everywhere. So, what can you use it for? Let’s take a look.

Video Phone

Microsoft VX6000 WebcamThe idea of video phone used to be one of those futuristic concepts in the “someday” department. Today, using the internet, video phone is commonplace. Most instant messaging clients today support video in one way or the other. Personally, my favorite is Skype. With Skype, you just download and install a free program, search for your friends on the Skype network, add them as contacts, and then you can talk to them whenever you want. At it’s core, Skype is more like a phone. You talk to people using the microphone on your PC and you hear the other person over your speakers. Once you begin a call, though, you can start up your webcam and allow the other person to see you (and vice versa if they have a webcam).

Setting up the webcam with Skype is easy and works most of the time. I say “most of the time” because I used to have a weird problem with everything looking green and scrambled – kinda like watching pay-per-view without the unscrambling. I still do not know why that was happening, but since I upgraded to Windows Vista, everything works fine.

Home/Office Monitoring

Sometimes you may want to be able to monitor your office or home when you are not there. Webcams are your ticket to paradise. When it comes to monitoring, you will find that there are many more expensive webcam options available. The difference, usually, between those more expensive webcams and the smaller ones for your desktop computer is that the larger webcams probably have a web server built into them. That means the webcam is internet-enabled with it’s own IP address. Once connected to your network, you can directly access the webcam and view what it sees over the internet. Essentially, then, the webcam is a mini-computer with a lens.

You don’t need a expensive, server-enabled webcam to do home monitoring. You can use one of the cheaper, USB cameras and use your own computer as the server.

Live Streaming

These days it is VERY easy to live stream from your webcam to the internet. The popularity of it is also increasing due to several web-based services which turn it into child’s play. Chris Pirillo, of Lockergnome and TechTV fame, has almost totally changed the way he brings content to the web now. He uses live streaming video almost 24/7 and he then posts recordings of relevant portions to Youtube and several other video sites. Justin.TV is another pretty popular live webcam streaming site.

Now, Chris Pirillo is not using a small USB webcam for his primary footage. But, you can. And he does use a service that anybody can use: Ustream. Ustream makes bringing live video to the web really easy. Browsing around Ustream shows that most of the “shows” are really stupid and boring. A few, though, offer real shows that are entertaining and useful. To use Ustream, all you need is the Flash plug-in installed to your web browser. It doesn’t get easier. Stickam is another similar service to Ustream.

By the way, a poor man’s way to do room monitoring could be to use your cheap webcam in conjunction with Ustream. It will work.

Recording Videos

Perhaps you simply want to get some footage of yourself and record it for something else. For example, using Camtasia Studio, you can record your screen and create presentations. Camtasia, though, also has the ability to bringing in footage from your webcam so that you can create a picture-in-picture effect in your final video. Using Windows Movie Maker, you can also record direct from your webcam and make a video out of it suitable for posting to sites like Youtube. Unfortunately, you have to use Windows Movie Maker under Windows XP. WMM under Vista has gotten rid of this feature…something Microsoft really dropped the ball on.

Video Email

Video email is not something that is quite there. Sure, you can probably email video file attachments around, but that is tedious. Fortunately, if you take the whole traditional email thing out of the equation and make it all web-based, it gets easier. Enter Eyejot. Eyejot is a free video mail service. You set up an account and you can send video messages back and forth with people. It interfaces with your webcam using the Flash plug-in, just like Ustream. The only hitch to this whole thing is that one has to log into their Eyejot profile in order to view messages. You will, however, get an email notification of a new Eyejot message so you’re not left guessing.

Show Your Mug

So, yes, if you don’t mind having your mug shot in full motion going out across the internet, there are many cool ways to use your webcam.