Here's looking at you, kids.
The Connectix Quickcam, for Macintosh and Windows computers, is a gray-scale video camera that resembles an oversized eyeball with freckles and a tail. The camera, smaller than a baseball, comes with a built-in microphone and pyramid stand.
To get an idea of what it will look like atop your computer, check out the design on the back of a dollar bill.
In fact, check out the backs of 99 dollar bills, which is what many catalogs charge for this endearing little gadget. For less than $100, computer users can experiment with multimedia production or simple video teleconferencing without going up to their eyeballs in debt.
The Macintosh and Windows versions are essentially the same, except that the Mac model plugs into a serial port, while the Windows model requires the printer port. I tested only the Macintosh model, because the Mac is currently the superior platform for multimedia work. (To add sound to Quickcam movies, for example, Windows machines have to add a sound card, while sound is built into the Macintosh.)
There is no mistaking the Quickcam for a high-quality video camera or camcorder, or even for one of the still video cameras like Apple's Quicktake. The video images the Quickcam captures and displays on the computer's screen range are small, jerky, grainy and limited to 16 shades of gray (4-bit grayscale, in computer geekspeak). Connectix is said to be developing a color Quickcam, but no date has been set for delivery.
So it is not perfect. But to be able to capture live video for $99, many Quickcam owners are willing to forgive.
The eyeball gathers images in digital form, which means that unlike conventional video cameras that capture analog images on videotape, the Quickcam does not require an expensive analog-to-digital conversion board. Everything needed to create and play back video on the Macintosh is contained in the Quickcam's triangular box.
One can tinker with the video settings to eliminate the jerkiness, by capturing more image frames per second, but doing so shrinks the on-screen image to 60 pixels by 80 pixels, not much larger than a postage stamp. To get a bigger image, 240 pixels by 320 pixels, the frame rate falls to four frames a second.
The eyeball lens appears to have no way to compensate for changes in lighting, so either a well-lit room (ideally with conventional lights rather than fluorescent lights) or a daylight setting is required.
The Quickcam also works well with newer Macintosh Powerbook and Duo portable computers. Lugging a portable computer and an eyeball video camera to the beach may strike some as a bit odd, but it is a sure-fire way to meet people.
The sound quality of the camera's built-in microphone is also barely adequate, and on my Mac the video image deteriorated whenever sound was added.
A fun trick is to link the Quickcam image to a screen saver program that comes with the camera. When the computer is idle for a few moments, the screen fills with whatever image the camera is seeing at the moment.
Some Quickcam users might have fun using it as a security camera, making time-lapse movies that consist of a frame every few minutes. Who has been messing around your desk? The eyeball knows.
An even neater trick for more advanced Macintosh users is to link the Quickcam with an experimental Internet software application called CU-Seeme (pronounced see you see me), for simple video teleconferencing. The CU stands for Cornell University, where CU-Seeme was developed.
The software is available via Internet file transfer protocol (FTP) from Cornell's anonymous FTP site, cu-seeme.cornell.edu in the directory called /pub/video.
CU-Seeme requires a very fast modem, preferably 28,800 bits per second or faster, and an Internet Protocol (IP) dial-up or direct link to the Internet, which is not the same as an Internet link through America Online or one of the other commercial on-line networks.
And, of course, successful video teleconferencing requires a CU-Seeme partner on the other end of the line.
More information on the Quickcam is available from Connectix of San Mateo, Calif., by calling (800) 950-5880. The Internet address is quickcam(at)connectix.com.