Revisiting iVisit – Conference Calling Like We Did Last Decade

iBOT webcamA bit over a decade ago I began toying around with my first webcam, a product called iBOT distributed by the now-defunct company Orange Micro. iBOT was a cute little translucent-gray and blue FireWire camera shaped like an eyeball and mounted on a foot-shaped pedestal. I’d impulsively purchased the little guy after spotting him at my college’s computer store; iBOT perfectly matched the blue and white Power Mac I owned at the time and was the only webcam I’d come across that took advantage of Apple’s FireWire standard.

I don’t recall whether or not I had any specific purposes in mind for the gadget other than recording and editing video; I’d long desired to own a camcorder (or any type of video recording device) and held grand designs about the short films I would produce once I owned such a gadget. The webcam was a lot less expensive than the handheld camcorders available at the time, and even with the limitation of being shackled to my desktop computer I figured I would still have some fun with it. Perhaps I would produce a series of fictional videos about a young man whose story unfolds via video journal entries — something similar to The Blair Witch Project, but purely for the Web. Or maybe I would just be a talking, bodiless head — a Max Headroom for a new millennium (with even shoddier graphics!).

Sometime between my experiments in low-end video production I began spending clock cycles employing the webcam toward its true purpose: adult video chat. iVisit is an application intended for the purpose of communicating with or making presentations to others in real time; the conferencing service enables up to eight users to occupy one of a variety of public or private virtual rooms in order to either chat via audio and/or text while enjoying video of one another. The service is quite similar in operation to Voice over IP applications such as TeamSpeak (a technology used by Gnomies, the paid community component of LockerGnome) — but with video, of course.

A view of iVisitThese days, broadband (high-speed) Internet adoption is wide, due to its ever-increasing availability and affordability. At the turn of the century the broadband Internet access available in my neighborhood was limited and expensive, so I opted to stick with dialup ‘Net access for as long as I could. Engaging in any type of video conferencing online over a 56k connection was a somewhat painful experience, as video was transmitted at a very low quality (if it was able to be transmitted at all). Chatting with others using iVisit worked just well enough to be impressive, and utterly fascinating.

When I first stumbled upon iVisit’s website, the application’s marketers enticed potential users by advertising engaging conversations with good-looking people; one had the impression that you could instantly meet and chat with a beautiful stranger by simply installing the software and entering the world of iVisit. I was intrigued, and so I downloaded the software, plugged in my iBOT, and jumped into the fray. Upon entering iVisit’s virtual party line, I found it immediately addictive, much like my first few experiences in text-based chat rooms in the mid-’90s. As soon as I entered a “room,” I found anywhere from one to eight users’ videos clipping along at animated GIF-like rates. The majority of the visitors were male, but there were enough women participating to keep the service interesting for someone seeking to chat with the opposite sex.

On the surface of it, the service wasn’t entirely purposed for romance; there were rooms intended for a variety of potential PG-rated uses, such as those labeled Art, or Technology, or Sports. There were a few private rooms seemingly being utilized by businesses for hosting meetings. But the majority of rooms were often empty, so most of the time you could only find other users hanging out in one of the areas reserved for adult conversation.

Typically, the rooms labeled Romance were occupied by men bombarding the few ladies in their midst with attention, chatting with them flirtatiously or, more often, making inappropriate requests. It was stimulating, and I found it fascinating. You have to remember that this was before the days of Skype, iChat, Apple’s FaceTime, or Google’s Hangouts. This was before Mac OS X, when Macs could barely play DVDs without hiccupping or crashing. (That was the case with my Mac, anyway.) Downloading and then watching QuickTime movie trailers was one of the most exciting things you could do with video on a Mac — particularly one still communicating via dialup — back then. So being able to watch and share a conversation with another person was remarkably interesting for me at the time, particularly if there was the potential for that conversation to become intimate.

I may have spent just a few days using iVisit, or perhaps a few weeks — you know how time is compressed on the Internet — but those days were exhilarating. I visited iVisit as often as I could, chatting up strangers and trying to get some of the women to talk in ways they wouldn’t normally in a coffee shop. Sooner or later, though, I grew bored. The exhilaration wore off and I began to realize how superficial the conversations often were. More and more I began to wonder how far off people’s representations of themselves differed with reality. The stimulation I’d once experienced from chatting up unfamiliar women faded; there simply were not enough women around often enough.

One day I found myself alone in a room with two guys, each asking me questions I began to feel uncomfortable answering. Suddenly I had a thought: What if the two guys hanging out in this room with me are really just one guy, logging in from separate accounts? How would I know which of the users was the real person? How would I know if the video this guy was displaying was actually an honest image of him anyway? What if that young woman who just entered the chat room and began flirting with me wasn’t even really a woman?

About a week ago I installed the latest version of the iVisit client application for Windows, iVisit Presenter, and found that the service appears to operate just as it did 10 years ago. In fact, I find it remarkable that the service has hardly changed in the way it looks and behaves — on the surface of it, at least. Perhaps there’s far more functionality than there was back then; I don’t know yet. I haven’t yet chatted with anyone using the service and I’m not even sure I want to anymore. Unless someone out there wants to chat with me, I don’t see any reason to.

But if there are a few of you out there who would like to visit with me via iVisit, I’d be willing to give it a try again. I promise to keep the conversation stimulating…and platonic.

Have you tried iVisit? What similar applications have you used? Let me know about your past and present experiences with video conferencing applications.