We often want to have synchronous (at the same time) communications with collaborators and partners around the world.
Commonly used closed technologies like Microsoft Skype, Apple Facetime, Google Hangouts and a myriad of costly video conferencing systems often require complex software client installations, are sometimes limited by client-access-licenses (CALs), and often don't work on all relevant platforms, particularly Linux computers, smartphones, and tablets.
We can recommend the following technologies which employ the open web standard of Web Realtime Communications aka WebRTC. The WebRTC stack is built into modern browsers like Google Chrome and open source browsers like Mozilla Firefox and Chrome's open source progenitor, Chromium - there's no additional software to install. These browsers run on all desktop platforms we've seen and nearly all mobile platforms.
The WebRTC open standard was selected by Google (who also helped design it) for use with Google Hangouts, meaning that you're already using WebRTC under the bonnet/hood if you're using Hangouts.
How does WebRTC work?
- Just click the link/go to the website of a WebRTC provider (there are many, two we've tested are below) in one of the above browsers from your desktop. Alternatively, if you're using a mobile device, install the appropriate mobile app (usually $0, gratis) from the appropriate online store.
- Enter the name of your preferred "room" (just a name you give to your virtual "place" to meet).
- Provide the web address (URL) you've selected (usually in the form theWebRTCServiceName/YourRoomName, e.g. https://appear.in/OERu) to anyone you want to meet with. Some WebRTC services will help you email or SMS (text) your collaborators with the appropriate URL details.
- If they enter that web address, or click a link in an SMS or email, they'll be asked to give their browser permission to use their web camera and microphone (it still works for audio-only conferencing for people who haven't got a web camera available), and once given, they'll pop up in the conversation!
WebRTC Video Conferencing Options
Both of these services are gratis ($0) at present. This may or may not continue to be the case.
- Appear.in - offers the ability to create "invite-only" rooms, vet incoming participants, turn-off/on all participants video and mic (to help minimise data use/bandwidth requirements and reduce background noise)
- OpenTok RTC - offers screen sharing, and the ability to record a video of the conversation which you can download at the end as a record of the conversation - this is a gratis service.
Features of WebRTC
- fully encrypted traffic from end-to-end - no snooping by spy agencies like the NSA, GSHQ, or GCSB (among others), which centralised video conferencing systems like Skype and Facetime do allow.
- no specialised app install required for most users - just uses the browser most people already have installed
- the mobile apps provide some convenience, like storing your camera and volume preferences.
- includes external "chat" channels for group and one-to-one communication between call participants
Limitation of WebRTC
- due to its focus on user privacy and security, WebRTC's model involves dedicated encrypted streams of data going between all participants in a conversation. That means that 5 participants in a conversation requires 5x more data to be transferred among all the participants, so WebRTC currently has some scaling issues. In our experience, you can expect to have 5-10 participants without too many problems, but performance (particularly of video) will be affected by the participant with the slowest internet connection.
Tips for best results
These are probably true for all online video-conferencing technologies, not just WebRTC...
- use with headphones to separate the sound output from the microphone input. This leads to much less buzz!
- if you can use a wired (ethernet) connection to the internet for your call, you're likely to get better performance than you will over Wifi or 3/4G.
- if any of your participants has particularly slow internet connectivity, they may get "drop outs" in sound quality. The best way to remedy this is for them to turn off the video feeds from other participants via controls in the