Making free international phone calls through the Internet is even more fun than we hoped. We were talking to a new contact in India through the free phone service called Skype when she suggested we talk to another Skype user she called “Peter of England.”
Peter of England turned out to be a retired printer in North Yorkshire, and while we were talking to him, he brought in Norm, who was taking it easy at home in the kiwi-growing centre of New Zealand. We all chatted together in a conference call that was entirely free, because we all had downloaded the free Skype software from Skype.com. Norm of New Zealand, who is 85, said he prefers using Skype to a regular phone because he can turn the volume up as much as he likes.
We spoke through our computer using a webcam; you can use video only for one-on-one conversations. Webcams turn out to be fairly cheap, and we bought ours for around $30. All of the conversation and the video came through very clearly, with none of the static or breaks we used to associate with Internet calls a couple of years ago.
We accepted an invitation to join a virtual meeting of a group of Rotarians with 18 members: 10 in London, three in the United States, and one each in France, Switzerland, Portugal, Malaysia and Germany. On that day, they were visiting with another virtual Rotarian group in Iceland. The Skype screen display showed us who was talking and who was present at this conference call. If we wanted to, we could have clicked a button on the Skype screen and recorded everything. The whole thing was a kick and an international adventure. And it was all free.
The meeting in Iceland was a private conference, but there are plenty of public conferences going on all the time. These are listed in a column of “live” links on the Skype screen. The links also show what language is being used, and you can join in if you want. To create a Skypecast of your own, go to Skypecasts.Skype.com. If someone is obnoxious or turns out to be simply troublesome, the originator of the conference can click a button to mute him.
Skype allows you to add all the participants in any conference to your contacts list. For that matter, the software can comb through your Outlook or Outlook Express mail and compile a list of those names who also have Skype. You can then make a free Skype call to any of them just by clicking on their name from within the software. Works with Windows, Mac or Linux.
Video clips in sync
ClipSync is a free service from ClipSync.com that lets you watch videos with your friends, or any other group you want to put together, and send text messages to each other while you watch. You can have a dozen or hundreds of people watch a training video together, or a lecture, and send comments back and forth.
The service is still in its beta testing phase, but already has more than 10,000 users after one month. It checks to see who is on any of your lists of people available for instant messaging, and you can click to send them a canned invitation to watch a video with you.
ClipSync has a nice search engine for finding videos, and those videos can come from many sources. We saw a video of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman explaining how to manipulate single atoms. Some of the early users are teachers using the videos for instruction.
The new Snap Art from AlienSkin.com creates painterly effects on ordinary photographs. At $149, it’s a bit pricey, but it worked very well.
By painterly effects we mean making a photograph look like it was done with a paint brush, or charcoal, crayon, pencil, chalk, etc. You can also get special effects from Microsoft Digital Image Suite, which we found for $30 at Amazon.com, and Adobe’s Photoshop Elements 3 for $86, also at Amazon. The full Photoshop was $580.
Corel’s Painter is the granddaddy of all such programs, but it’s $429 at the Corel.com Web site. There’s a cut-down version called Corel Painter Essentials 3 for $79, and you can get it for either Mac or Windows. You can also get painterly effects using Ulead’s excellent PhotoImpact, even if you go back to version 5, which we found for $5 at eBay and $10 at Amazon. The latest version, version 12, is a download at TuCows.com for $90.
There are differences in all these programs, however. While they can all add effects that will make any picture look hand-drawn, each one tends to be better at some effects than others. This is unfortunate for the customer, who may have a strong preference for certain effects.
Summing it all up, we thought the Snap Art program from Alien Skin was worth the price. You can download trial versions of all but Microsoft’s for free by going to the companies’ Web sites: Adobe at Adobe.com; Corel at Corel.com.
An Internuts for kids
At Stardoll.com you can move clothes around on models. This is the Web site equivalent of playing with paper dolls, but the dolls you play with are pictures of celebrities like Cameron Diaz, David Hasselhoff and Beyonce. You drag and drop clothes onto the models from closets on the side of the screen. The site is aimed at children aged 7 to 17 and has visitors from many countries, about a third of them from the United States.