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You Sexy Thing!

How to Look Great on iChat AV, in Spite of Your Spiteful iSight

by Nitrozac and Snaggy, authors of The Best of The Joy of Tech
03/16/2004

iSight, the Final Frontier . . . Let's face it folks, the days of hiding comfortably behind your avatar are over. With the advent of broadband Internet, cameras like Apple's iSight, and programs such as iChat AV, that Holy Grail of science fiction, the videoconference, has arrived on your desktop. And if you are like us, one of the generations of geeks who grew up watching Star Trek, you can't wait to join the United Federation of Video-Enabled Planets.

So, like any good video cadet would, you excitedly bought an iSight, set up your camera, downloaded iChat AV, and engaged the program! Then came the shock. Yikes!... do I really look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon?

Relax, and get some air into your gills, because chances are good you don't look quite so frightening as that ... you probably just need to do a little tweaking here and there. You see, the video chat is a whole different species, one that presents new challenges, especially to Internet veterans who have devoted their entire career training in the fine art of communication using alphanumeric characters.

Just about everyone looks great behind a cursor, but the days of communicating online exclusively with text are numbered. The Internet used to be a place where we could only read each other's words and your imagination would fill in the visual voids. Now that's all changing.

No longer can we sit in grubby geek glee, protected by our avatar shields, wearing only uniforms of underwear. Endangered are the days where we can pass digital transmissions and gas simultaneously, picking our noses with one hand, and stuffing pizza down our throats with the other. Slowly but surely video is changing that, and sooner or later you're going to find yourself beamed up into someone's iChat AV window. At that instant, you probably don't want to suddenly realize you're a redshirt.

So, to help you through this difficult adjustment, we're going to look at some of the things you can do to make your virtual self look as good as possible. Although we'll be focusing on the iSight and iChat AV, these techniques also apply to other web cameras, video cameras, and videoconferencing software.

Some tips are simple, some will seem a little more radical. We're not miracle workers, (Damn it Nitrozac, we're cartoonists not plastic surgeons!) but we do think that you will be able to use them to help guide you on your AV mission: to explore video worlds, seek out new social life and AV situations, to boldly and beautifully geek where you have never geeked before!

I'm a Nerd, Not a Fashion Model

So right about now you may be saying to yourself, "Wait a nanosecond, why should I care how I look online?" Well, if you're like most humans, you probably want people to enjoy your company, and you want to make a good impression, whether you're seeking love, taking part in an online interview, or just talking to your friend across the office.

Here's something to think about. If you're slumped in front of the camera, looking rather unapologetically post-apocalyptic, then what you're saying to the person you are chatting with is, "I don't care about you." Yes, believe it or not, not caring about your looks is a sign you don't care about the person on the other end of the connection, in real life or on computer screen. Now that is going to be a puzzling and perplexing concept to some of you, but it's true.

We're not saying that you have to rewrite your entire personal source code to please your civilization's aesthetic preferences, but we are suggesting that by tuning up your hardware and tweaking your individual GUI, you can enhance the user experience. It doesn't hurt to look your best, and in situations where you're pursuing a potential partner, it can lead to some insanely great things.

Shape Up Your Software

The iSight is an amazing camera, but the not-so-flattering reality is that without some taming, this sleek little Mac Eye can cast us in an poor light. We call that light the Blue Glow of Death, named after the pale bluish Goth-like effect the camera will give to you in low-light conditions.

So first things first, if you haven't yet, install the iSight 1.0.2 Update. It offers significant improvements, (and we do mean significant!) over 1.01, including improved auto exposure and auto white balance. Admittedly, the Blue Glow of Death hasn't been completely eliminated, but at any rate the update is a huge improvement, especially under incandescent lighting.

Here's an example of the difference a little updated code can make:

Pre 1.0.2 update. Jon Maddox as blue-skinned Andorian.

Post 1.0.2 Jon Maddox looking amazingly human!

Screenshots courtesy of Jon Maddox.

Setting Up the Camera

Getting into the missionary position. First off, let's mount the camera correctly. The most flattering position for your camera is straight in front of you, at eye level or slightly higher. This location makes your video conferencing look more natural, as if you were face-to-face with your AV partner. As a bonus, this mounting position also reduces the dreaded Double Chin Amplification Effect that a camera sitting on your desk and pointing up at you can produce.

Related Reading

The Best of The Joy of Tech
By Nitrozac and Snaggy

Accessories are a geek's best friend. To help you position your camera, Apple ships the iSight with three mounts, but let's be honest folks, these mounts are the Achilles' heel of an otherwise superb product. Nobody really wants to use adhesive tape to stick a mount to their monitor, nor do they want to fumble around with plastic clamps. Luckily third parties are stepping in and have created some great solutions to the iSight's mounting shortcomings. Our personal favorite, and one we would recommend for anyone with an iSight, is MacMice's SightFlex.

The SightFlex puts your camera on the end of a flexible gooseneck, one that can be twisted and bent into pretty much any shape you'd like. No more clamps, lost plastic connectors, or any of the other frustrations associated with the standard mounts. It gives your camera a freedom of movement and positioning that lets you easily and quickly choose and adjust camera angles.

Once you have the camera where you want it, there's a another simple way to make eye contact with your partner. Move your iChat AV window's position on your screen to the direction of camera. The closer you can get the two to line up, the more it will appear that you are directly facing your iChat AV partner.

A second useful accessory you can add to an iSight is a wide-angle lens. You'll find a wide angle is handy for including another person, displaying more of your workspace or even an entire meeting room, or if you are using the camera for surveillance. A bonus effect of such a lens is that it tends to make people look a little thinner. Remember those Heart music videos with the horizontally compressed field of view? Well, you won't look quite that uncomfortably squished, but it will help a bit.

When we use our iSight for interviews or virtual book signings, we often use a Nikon wide-angle lens (WC-E24), so we can both fit nicely into the field of view. This lens was originally acquired for use with a CoolPix digital camera, but with a quick hack, it works superbly with the iSight. Using a small plastic bottle, a little tape, and a rubber band, Snaggy fashioned a handy lens holder, which easily slips on or off the iSight.

Another option you have for adding a lens to the iSight is Kaidan's iSight Accessory Kit. The kit includes a 37mm threaded lens adapter ring (also available separately) that slips onto the iSight, letting you attach a standard 37mm lens or filters.

Homegrown filters. If you've always dreamed of being a dreamboat, here's your chance to bask in a flattering romantic glow. Create a soft filter by stretching a piece of very fine gauze or pantyhose over the lens, or for those of you that are a little more kinky, there's that old standby Vaseline. Fit some clear plastic wrap tightly over the lens with a rubber band, then apply a little dab of Vaseline. Wipe it a bit and behold ... you'll find yourself in a soft and dreamy ethereal experience, as if you are the poster child for the Harlequin Romance lifestyle.

Remember, first and foremost you are a geek, and geeks were born to experiment! Don't be afraid to play with all kinds of homemade light benders. Convex and concave lenses, your grandmother's spectacles, beer bottles, shot glasses, bubble wrap, candy wrappers, all can be placed in front of your webcam. You never know what cool effect you'll come up with, or what warrantee you can expire early.

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