Skype types go cybervisiting
No borders to attendance ... video chat software is revolutionising long-distance communications and relationships. Photo: Getty Images
Eugenie Pepper, a Randwick-based part-time marketing manager, sees her sister almost every afternoon. But they don't live anywhere near each other: her sister is 15,000 kilometres away in France. The two keep in regular contact through video calls.
''We're probably more in touch now than we would be if we were living in the same city,'' she says. ''I can show her new shoes or a new dress I bought, and I can even put them on and ask her what she thinks. We actually feel like we're seeing each other in person.''
Their first meaningful relationship was through video chat.Paul Naphtali
Public relations consultant Paul Naphtali also uses video chat to keep in touch with relatives. His two children chat to his parents-in-law in Britain every week. As well as using the video chat service Skype, they use an iPad app called PlayTell so the grandparents can read the youngsters stories and have a video chat at the same time.
Staying in touch ... a family chats over Skype.
''Their first meaningful relationship was through video chat,'' he says. ''When they met in person, it was as if they had just seen each other the week before.''
Naphtali says his children have become so used to video chatting that they refuse to talk to him on the phone when he's on a business trip. ''They're just so used to Skyping or FaceTiming,'' he says.
''When I would ring them, my daughter would say, 'I can't see daddy. I don't want to talk to him because I can't see him.'''
Most consumer video chat services are free. All you need is a relatively fast internet connection and a computing device with a built-in microphone and front-facing camera (any laptop, tablet or smartphone should do).
Skype is the biggest of the video chat services. It has up to 40 million online users at any given time, with more than 300 billion minutes passing through its network a year - roughly half of which are video calls. The video-call feature built into Facebook uses the Skype network. But other consumer services are quickly catching up.
Google's social network, Google+, has a ''Hangouts'' feature that enables up to 10 people to video chat free at the same time. Skype offers a group video-calling feature too, but you pay to use it.
While it was originally designed to connect friends and family along the same lines as Skype, Google says it quickly noticed people were using Hangouts to connect with other users based on common interests.
Barack Obama and Julia Gillard both used Hangouts this year to field questions from voters in real time. Celebrities such as Brad Pitt, Ellen DeGeneres and David Beckham use it to interact with fans; as does the Dalai Lama .
Apple's FaceTime is another video chat service on the rise. When it launched two years ago, it could only be used to chat with other iPhone users via wi-fi.
Apple has since broadened its reach to include iPads, iPod Touches and Mac computers. It also added the ability to use it over a 3G or 4G mobile data network.
The only ongoing expense for video chatting comes from the data it uses on your internet plan. As it sends and receives audio and video simultaneously, it's a lot more bandwidth-intensive than web browsing, and this frequently results in a poor experience if you're on a slow internet connection.
''When you look at video conferencing from home, with ADSL connections they're very asymmetric in that you have a lot of download but not a lot of upload,'' says a spokesman for NBN Co, Sean Casey.
''When you have video conferencing, what you need is actually good speed in both directions.''
Service providers for the National Broadband Network, which is currently being rolled out across Australia, have plans that offer up to 100Mbps download speed and 40Mbps upload speed. ''With that kind of bandwidth up, you're able to deliver that high-definition video,'' Casey says. ''So you can have that conference and that two-way experience.''
Apps for video chats
Skype software is available as a free download for PCs, Macs and most mobile operating systems. It's also built into Facebook so you can call people in your network through a web browser.
FaceTime is built into the software on iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches. The latest Mac computers have it already installed, but older Macs need to download it separately from the Mac App Store for 99¢.
Google+ Hangouts works on any computer through a web browser, and is preloaded on Android smartphones and tablets. You can also use it on iPhones, iPads and iPod touches by downloading the free Google+ app.