Webcam. Digicam. Why Is There a Difference?

MicroShaftedMicrosoft purchased Skype, a free service, for $8.5 billion dollars a few years ago and the program’s users howled in protest. They’d seen that movie before, and knew about Microsoft’s “embrace, extend, and extinguish” strategy. Microsoft promised Skype’s users that they wouldn’t screw it up. A recent OS reinstall and upgrade of the program broke a major component for my employer though, and we’re not happy about it.

Let’s go back into time a bit. Several years ago we had a Polycom videoconferencing system installed in our conference room. We’d used it a lot in the past but the system had gotten old and the university’s gatekeeper wouldn’t support it anymore. We were quoted $15,000 to upgrade it. Department management weighed the cost against other needed upgrades and instructed me to dismantle the old system. I then purchased a Sony PTZ low-rez (NTSC) videoconferencing camera, Vaddio camera shoe and converter box, and a Grass Valley ADVC55 video digitizer. After installing two CAT-5 runs I put the camera on the upper back wall of the conference room and put the rest of the equipment in the presenter’s podium. The camera was then connected to the Mac through the digitizer with a FireWire connection. After also installing a Panasonic PJP-25UR USB conferencing microphone and Skype the system worked flawlessly.  We used it several times for online course sessions and job interviews, but mostly used the system for lecture capture using Tegrity. All was well with the world.

Last week we received a request for two remote connections into a workshop. Knowing Skype couldn’t handle it I decided to try GoToMeeting by Citrix. Meanwhile the podium PC needed a software upgrade so we allowed the campus IT folk to load a new image, after which I downloaded and reinstalled Skype as well as GoToMeeting. I first brought up GoToMeeting and the program couldn’t find our camera. Then I brought up Skype and it couldn’t find the camera either. Hmm. Time for serious troubleshooting.

I soon eliminated the cabling, digitizer, and camera as the source of the problem. I hooked the signal chain into the FireWire connection on a Macbook and got a great picture using different software. Then I hit the web. It seems that a number of people had developed the same issue after a Skype “upgrade.” Skype now only works with devices that identify themselves as webcams. After sending a Tech Support request to Citrix I discovered that GoToMeeting only supports webcams as well. Tegrity still works fine with the setup, so it seems that the support for my equipment is on a per-program basis and not at the OS level where it should be.

This makes no sense. I can (sort of) understand if Microsoft wants to derail businesses from using Skype in that manner since it’s a consumer product, but GoToMeeting’s stated premise is to allow conferencing with anyone, anywhere—and you’d have to believe that one of those locations would have a bunch of people at a big conference table.

It turns out there’s a workaround. Several companies offer software that allows a DV (digital video) camera to emulate a webcam. Programs such as ManyCam, SplitCam, TrackerCam, WebcamDV, and Webcam Studio (for Linux) are used for that purpose. Some of these have trial versions; some allow additional features such as titling and transitions. All of them require running their programs first, then minimizing them while you run Skype or GoToMeeting. You also have to go into each application’s setup menu and choose the camera “shim” software as your video source before your camera can be used. It’s not an ideal solution. I’d like to have a free program that performed the shim function silently, in the background, without all the other features that I don’t require.

I used to have a setup where someone could go into the conference room, boot up, launch the desired program, and they’d be ready to use the system. Now I have to be there to set up and tweak the system for them. Citrix’s GoToMeeting software has been around for a while, and it’s inconceivable that they still don’t support DV cameras.

As for Microsoft breaking something that already worked? Perhaps they’re finally learning some things from Apple…

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