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Virtual Book Signings
Pages: 1, 2

Virtual, deluxe

When Apple announced its iSight camera and iChat AV, we recognized that we now had an opportunity to enhance our virtual appearances by delivering high-quality, two-way audio and video without the legendary hassles normally associated with video conferences.

Of course, there is a big catch here, you can't go it alone. You will require the services of a "Scotty" on the other side: a ready, willing, and knowledgeable geek who will be on site to round up the necessary equipment and handle the setup. Your geek will also be there during the event to receive the stream, handle any problems that might occur, and act as the host for the event.

All this may sound daunting but as long as you have a high-speed connection to the Internet, setting up an iSight and running iChat AV for your event should be a no-brainer. Of course, even the simplest system can run into glitches that will threaten the entire show, so to illustrate, we'll share our experiences with you from a recent virtual book signing.

Snaggy's Law: The more important an event is, the greater the likelihood of technical difficulties.

At our Emerging Technology Conference (ETech) appearance in February 2004, we had the extreme pleasure of working with Bill Takacs, O'Reilly product manager for the event. Previous to the conference, we had been discussing the setup at ETech, and eventually convinced ourselves that we had all the technical wrinkles ironed out. Famous last words.

Almost immediately into the event, we recognized that we'd need external speakers to boost the sound at the conference-end of things. Bill was running the ETech side from an iBook, and the built-in speakers just didn't have sufficient volume, especially in the crowded area where the signing was taking place. Luckily, being the resourceful geek he is, Bill was able to quickly round up some external speakers and we were good to go ... or so we hoped.

Our signings were scheduled to be held during the breaks between the conference's sessions. We had access to the broadband at the conference, and during the sessions, things were looking and sounding great. However, we discovered that during the breaks, as conference participants emerged from the sessions, they immediately went online to check their email and download the world's biggest files. It was like a school of starving piranhas feasting on a hapless jungle newbie. Available bandwidth was rapidly consumed, and our video stream was stripped of its flesh!

Fortunately for us, iChat AV does a remarkable job of maintaining a connection despite bandwidth woes, and after a few re-connections, we were able to continue our signing, and despite their otherworldly pixelated appearance, we were able to distinguish the most important feature of our fans, their smiles.

Tom and Bill
Nitrozac and Snaggy make first contact with creatures from the low-bandwidth dimension!

Tips for Net-setters

Here are a few things you can do to make the most out of your iChat AV virtual event.

  • Quit any extraneous programs you may have running. Your search for extraterrestrial life or the exact value of Pi can probably be put on hold for an hour or so. Both will be waiting for you after the conference, but for now, let your computer focus on processing video and sound.

  • For hints on setting up your camera and backgrounds, check out our How to Look Great on iChat AV article. There's no point in holding an event if people are going to cringe at the iSight of you. Your setup is important, but so too is the position of the screen and camera on the remote end. Ideally, you'd like the monitor raised high enough that the viewer doesn't have to bend down to peer at you, but if that can't be helped, just try to imagine you are a little Sea-Monkey being stared at by curious humans.

  • Making the iChat window as large as possible or full screen adds to the illusion that you are actually there, and that your fans are actually in front of you ... especially if your imagination is also configured to be as large as possible.

  • You may want to temporarily block your Buddy List during important conferences. The last thing you want in the middle of a career make-or-break interview is to be suddenly distracted by something like this...

Annoying friend

  • If you are signing books, but don't have a tablet device that lets you sign a digital file, you can always sign a piece of paper, then scan it into your computer (at a high resolution so it will print out nicely), then send it off to your fan via email.

  • If you're running out of bandwidth, or can't connect due to the lack thereof, try turning down your throughput. In iChat AV, go to the Preference/Video panel, and lower your bandwidth limit. If you still cannot connect, try switching to an Audio-only chat.

  • Keep a text window open so you can keep in touch with "the other side" if the bandwidth fails.

Of course, you're always going to run into problems like power outages, equipment failures, geekosphere malfunctions, and other random acts of technology. To help avoid the "Stress of Tech", we recommend that before the event, you thoroughly check all of your equipment, perform a test-run or two, and perhaps even make a small offering to whichever geek gods or daemons you currently believe in.

Virtually everyone's doing it

Nothing beats the experience of face-to-face interaction with friends and family, co-workers, or fans. However, in the event you can't meet in person, meeting virtually is truly the next best thing. The beauty of the virtual event is that it can give you more time, energy, and resources to do what you really want to do. For us, that is spending more of our time creating new works, and less time, energy, and resources promoting things that we've already created. It's one of those glorious have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too ideas that we think you'll be seeing more and more people utilize.

For instance, at a recent Florida Film Festival screening, an iChat video conference was held during the intermission, in which music video director Brett Simon interacted with the audience from his computer in Los Angeles. And fans of Dr. Phil (What are you thinking!) will no doubt have noticed he uses iSight and iChat AV to connect with his "Dr. Phil Families" in order to serve out his brand of therapy directly from his home to theirs. Another area where we think iChat AV is going to be very popular will be for teaching, from personal tutoring to remotely teaching an entire class of students.

So, whether you're sharing the hallmarks of your life, promoting your business, or just trying to see what that person you fell in love with over IM really looks like, we encourage you to give a virtual event a try ... at least it won't take you a few days to get over the Net-lag!

If you have a unique way that you use iChat or other telecommunications, let us know in the Talkbacks section below.

Beam us up Scotty!

Additional resources

  • You Sexy Thing! How to Look Great on iChat AV. Just about everyone looks great behind a cursor, but the days of communicating online exclusively with text are numbered. So, we offer our brand of advice on how to look great on iChat AV, in spite of your iSight. With tips on proper lighting, camera angles, and the ultimate Geek Makeover, this is essential reading for the iSight challenged ... after all, laughter is the best tech support!
  • David Pogue captures that iChat AV magic in When Technology Is Heartwarming.
  • Apple iChat AV. Apple has released iChat version 2.1. The new release adds support for video conferencing via AOL Instant Messenger 5.5 for Windows, but limited to those using Windows XP. Pssst... hey Apple, we'd love to see support for group AV chats in a future version!
  • Adventures in broadband video. Keith Shaw looks at some of the latest AV gear and software.
  • WebCam Software for Mac. Our favorite webcam apps for the Mac are EvoCam and Oculus. Both are easy to configure, offer lots of great features, and both are available for you to try out in trial modes.

Snaggy and Nitrozac have scheduled their next Virtual Book Signing for Saturday, May 22 at MacCenter in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. They'll be beaming down there via iChat AV at various times throughout the afternoon as part of their Meet and Geek event. If you are in the South Florida area, be sure to drop into MacCenter and say hi, they'd love to see you.

Nitrozac and Snaggy (a.k.a. Liza Schmalcel and Bruce Evans) are the authors of The Best of the Joy of Tech, and the creators of home of The Joy of Tech comic, thriving online community, and purveryor of fine propeller beanies.

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O'Reilly & Associates published The Best of the Joy of Tech in November 2003.