Outfit your PC with a webcam and microphone, and you can take advantage of the exciting world of video conferencing software. The advantages of being able to see as well as hear people over the internet are self evident. We communicate as much visually as we do through our words, so video paired with voice can open up new opportunities for you online. But very few people are taking advantage of the video conferencing tools now available. Read on for some tips about how to get started.

Q: What are some options for setting up simultaneous voice and video calls with multiple participants?

Ans: Most of the robust solutions for hosting video chats or conferences with many participants are fee-based. But there are several that are free, with Mebeam (http://www.mebeam.com) being arguably the easiest to get started with quickly.

Using Mebeam couldn’t be easier. Just log on to the site, type the name of a “room” for your conference, and click Connect. Tell the other participants to log on to Mebeam and type that same name into the Connect box, and you’ll all show up in the browser. Mebeam works for video conferences up to 16 people. Just make sure all participants are set up with a microphone and web cam before beginning the session. Other free options include ooVoo (http://www.oovoo.com), SightSpeed (http://www.sightspeed.com), Yugma (https://www.yugma.com), and tokbox (http://www.tokbox.com).

Fee-based video conferencing packages give you much more functionality than the free solutions and are better suited to more formal meetings. Perhaps the premier package in this space is Adobe’s Acrobat Connect Pro (http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobatconnectpro). Also a browser-based solution, Connect Pro can accommodate up to 100 participants and provides such features as integrated chat, file sharing, a white board, screen sharing, and session recording. It’s a powerful package, and if you’ll be holding regular video conferences, the 45 or 55 dollar per month fee is reasonable. GoToMeeting, another popular option, costs 49 per month.

Q: Can I use Skype for video conferencing?

Ans: Yes, but Skype is limited to one-on-one video conferencing.

That said, the quality of video conferencing over Skype is good, the setup is easy, and the price - free - is right.

Q: Do you have any tips for the best webcam or microphone to use for video conferences?

Ans: A high-quality webcam such as Microsoft’s LifeCam NX-3000 or Logitech’s QuickCam Pro 9000 will provide you with both good quality video and decent sound.

Webcams are nice because they contain everything you need - audio and video - in one package, and you can speak, talk, and move around naturally, without worrying about being constrained by cables or cords.

However, webcams also have their disadvantages for video conferencing. Chief among them is the fact that you’ll be hearing audio from others through your speakers, and if several people attempt to speak at once, and all are using their speakers, the resulting echo will make the conference unlistenable for other participants. Echo arises in this situation because your webcam’s microphone will be picking up what you hear through your speakers as well as what you say.

To counteract that in situations where multiple participants are allowed to speak at once, you should consider using a headset microphone, which will isolate the sound you hear to your ears only.

There are a number of decent, inexpensive headsets on the market. The downside to the headset is that you’ll have to wear it, and you may not like your appearance when it’s on your head.

The solution to this dilemma is to set up your video conferencing software so that only one person can speak at a time. Many of the programs mentioned earlier feature a microphone button that may either be pressed when someone wants to speak or held down automatically for continuous conversation. Have participants hold the microphone button down when they speak in order to avoid echo.

Q: I am going to be interviewed for a job by video conference. Should I worry about lighting?

Ans: A decently-lit room should suffice. But if you want to appear professionally lit, think about how professional photographers or videographers go about lighting their subjects. Two lights at 45 degree angles facing you should provide the kind of consistent lighting that you can leverage in order to adjust the white balance settings of your webcam in order to give your complexion a pleasing appearance. Also, a professional-quality microphone placed just out of sight of the webcam will help to improve audio, which can further add to the impression of professionalism that you probably hope to convey.

(Have a computer question? Send it to the Computer Helper at jd@mailcavern.com)