Free tools for teleconferencing with a 'virtual presence'

As business travel costs have gone up, there are now free choices that do more than mere instant messaging or video chatting

The Ekiga open source VoIP and videoconferencing client

The Ekiga open source VoIP and videoconferencing client

Ekiga supports industry standard video codecs, including H.263 and H.264. Being connected through a VPN to a videoconferencing unit at the office will allow you to attend meetings with good quality video while using little bandwidth from anywhere in the world.

One satisfied Ekiga user is Guillermo V. Salas, who works for a company that has many offices throughout Ecuador. From these locations, he uses Ekiga on his notebook to participate in high-resolution, full-screen video teleconferences with co-workers located at the main office.

Salas says "Ekiga is very useful and simplifies busy schedules for people who do not have the time, or do not like to travel a lot. The quality of video is clear and is like being with the other people in the same room."

Ekiga can be set up quickly. If your office is equipped with a SIP IP PBX, you only have to ask your admin for the log-in and PIN in order to connect to that IPBX.

Once you are connected, in a few clicks you can add the phone numbers of your colleagues in the contact list to monitor them, place calls, receive calls, transfer them, forward them and consult the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol directory of the company to look for colleague or customer phone numbers -- all over IP.

Shared whiteboards: Access Grid

A secure, multisite collaboration system, Access Grid was originally designed for scientists and engineers working together online. The software supports conference room installations using multiple computers with cameras, microphones and projectors distributed among them.

Third-party contributor-developers have since extended it to support higher-quality video and shared whiteboards, adding functionality to make it suitable for enterprise use. Anyone is free to extend the features of Access Grid in any way they see fit. "This openness is a huge differentiator in the space in which the Access Grid plays, because it is a largely closed, proprietary playing field," says Tom Uram, technical lead of the Access Grid project.

One strength of the Access Grid is the notion of persistent meeting rooms, or Virtual Venues. Users can enter a Venue for group meetings and share documents and applications. Individual members can enter the Venue at their leisure, or go back at any time to retrieve project documents from an earlier meeting. A virtual working environment like this can build cohesion among the telecommuting members of a group . "I regularly have Access Grid meetings with groups all over the world, and there's a very real sense of shared purpose that arises from our shared experience," Uram says.

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Howard Wen

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