Free tools for teleconferencing with a 'virtual presence'

As business travel costs have gone up, there are now free choices that do more than mere instant messaging or video chatting

The Ekiga open source VoIP and videoconferencing client

The Ekiga open source VoIP and videoconferencing client

Using teleconferencing technology has lately become an obvious and financially practical choice to offset rising business travel expenses. Yet sometimes simple chatting doesn't cut it. There has been growing interest in the notion of online conferencing with a "virtual presence" emphasis, which enables people to share information and their very selves with one another with a stronger sense of near-tangible "face time."

"Telepresence makes possible experiences that would generally require travel," says Claire Schooley, an analyst at Forrester Research who tracks the evolving teleconferencing market with an emphasis on virtual presence technologies. "To share drawings, pieces of art, even swatches of fabric, would require travel, which people might not be willing to do -- either they are too busy or sometimes too important. Interviews, law depositions and medical exams are other situations that require excellent quality [high-definition] at least."

Schooley, however, specifically defines "telepresence" apart from the more general terms "virtual presence" or "immersive conferencing."

"Telepresence refers to large plasma screens with cameras, microphones, lighting, along with a well-placed conference table and chairs," she says.

Such a setup can run up into six figures in price. Less technologically advanced units featuring HD-quality video, from providers such as Cisco and HP, cost less but can still be too much for small business, especially if one doesn't plan to use them regularly. It's not much of a bargain after all if the intent is to save money on travel expenses.

With this in mind, we took a look at a trio of software alternatives. Of course, none of them can replace the full-on teleconferencing products with big screens showing life-size images , set in a meeting room with nice furnishings. But each does specialize in an area addressed by the expensive virtual presence technologies -- and, even better, they're free.

High-resolution video teleconferencing: Ekiga

The recently released Version 3 of Ekiga has been heavily tested with IP private branch exchanges (PBX) implemented using Asterisk, Cisco Call Manager and many other Session Initiation Protocol (SIP)-based applications that an office may already have.

"Some people see Ekiga as a simple chat application or as a Skype replacement," says Damien Sandras, the creator of Ekiga. "That is only partly true. From the beginning, we wanted to give Ekiga an enterprise-worthy dimension. That is one of the reasons why we added features like call transfer, call hold and call forwarding. Those features are probably not useful for common people, but they are more than useful when using Ekiga as a softphone in companies."

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