Before I start my review of HearMe web conferencing software, I'm going to try to figure out the tortured ownership and branding relationships involved in the company.
HearMe was originally a web-based chat service that competed with PalTalk. It went under in 2001 and PalTalk bought up its assets. PalTalk these days acts as the public-facing company name and the product name for a very large social chat network that combines webcam video and computer audio to do audio-visual instant messaging. At least one of their press releases refers to HearMe as being owned and operated by PalTalk. But at the bottom of the HearMe web pages is a copyright notice referring to AVM Software, which doesn't have a separate web presence but seems to be the formal corporate entity that owns both products. The About Us page says that HearMe is a division of AVM Software, Inc. I think that for the remainder of this piece, I'll simply refer to the company as PalTalk and the web conferencing product as HearMe, as they seem to do in most of their writing.
I spoke with Joel Smernoff, the President and COO of PalTalk, about the launch of HearMe. He said that while PalTalk has been serving the "socialcasting" market for some nine years with millions of registered users, they have only recently started a move into the small business web conferencing space. They "soft launched" HearMe towards the end of 2006 and just released version 2.4 as the first solid production version. According to Joel, they are testing it for traction in the marketplace, primarily targeting small and medium businesses who are concerned with keeping costs down and not having to involve IT experts in order to setup, configure, and host web meetings.
The technology base is all taken from PalTalk's field-tested audio/video chat capabilities. PalTalk simultaneously streams multi-directional webcam video and VoIP audio to multiple users. While PalTalk uses downloaded and installed client-side software to support its consumer chat interface, HearMe is completely hosted as a web application. Aside from approving some Active/X controls, there is no software installation needed for presenters or attendees of a meeting. HearMe also makes use of the same physical network that supports PalTalk. Joel told me the company owns in excess of 200 dedicated servers in three data centers spread around the United States.
The company owns patented multicasting technology and Joel is proud of their active load capacity. He says they regularly handle thousands of people in a single virtual room, all sharing voice and audio. He does point out that while they are concerned about keeping latency low, they don't attempt to do perfect synchronization of voice and audio. So an image of a person speaking may show the lips moving out of synch with the sound coming over the computer speakers.
I got a live demo of the software from Hannah Rothman, the Senior Director of Marketing for HearMe. Regular readers know that I have time and again expressed my bias against using webcams for business presentations, so they won't be surprised that I don't own or use one with my business computer. For our demo, Hannah sent me an Ezonics iContact Pro webcam so we could do a true two-way video meeting.
Getting into a pre-set meeting is as easy as clicking a URL link in an email message. If you don't have an active hyperlink, it's a bit trickier, as the identification ID tends to be a very long string of digits. The first time you join a meeting, your browser downloads a plug-in that takes less than one minute to set up. For most browser security configurations the user will have to manually approve the use of Active/X controls.
Once in the meeting room, the interface is very simple. You can share your video with others, choose to see other users' video streams, and use type-in chat. Each feature has additional controls. For instance, video streams are shown by default as a horizontal row of small windows (you can scroll forward and backward if there are too many to fit on a screen). You can select any of the small windows for focus, undocking it from the row and resizing it to get a larger image.
You can also control your audio to put it in one of several operational modes. Push to talk makes your microphone active only while you hold down a screen button with your mouse. Voice activation makes your microphone active whenever it hears an input on your end. And you can also set your microphone to always on so that it doesn't cut in and out (this is the best mode for one-way presentations to a crowd).
The typed chat lets you send messages to the entire audience or to a single named individual (it basically opens up a one-to-one instant messaging window with your selected user). There is no concept of role-based activities, so if you have three speakers the audience cannot choose to send a message to "All Presenters."
You can send a file to an individual or to an entire audience. I was unable to confirm whether the file transfer is peer-to-peer or goes through a central server as an upload and download.
You can also share a document (including PowerPoint slides) or your entire desktop with others. This feature works best with fairly static displays of information. We tested some PowerPoint slide animations and transition effects and they didn't redraw very smoothly. It looked like the presenter side took a snapshot of the screen every half second to second and sent over an entire screen redraw to the receiving end. So a transition effect that showed a slide wiping down over the preceding slide tended to show up as two freeze-frames... one with the slide halfway down the screen and the next one with the animation complete, showing the new slide. Colors and pattern fills were rendered perfectly on the viewing side and I had no trouble seeing detail on the slide content. Desktop sharing always shows the entire desktop... there is no selection of a region to share with your audience.
Audio was clear and understandable during our meeting, but the system often dropped into half-duplex operation. That means that if one person was talking and the other person said something, the first person's voice would cut out. I found this to be mildly annoying in a two-person meeting and I shudder to think what would happen if you had a lot of people in a collaborative session all fighting to be heard at the same time. Hannah said the effect was a known problem in the new HearMe implementation and didn't exist in their PalTalk product. They are working on fixing the audio to allow full duplex operation in an upcoming release.
One of the interface features that concerned me for broadcast events (one-to-many presentations) was that the audience had to take proactive measures to see things the presenter was showing. For instance, if I choose to share my slides the audience has to click on a small icon next to my name in order to see them. I can't force a change of display on their machine. Similarly, after sharing ends, they need to reselect my video to see me again (the video stream stops when you share a document or desktop). I have found that communications can easily break down when you rely on your audience to follow specific directions at a specific time.
I let Hannah and her team know about my dislike for webcam video right up front and asked them how they were seeing adoption by business customers. She said they found video usage to be very high, including applications such as selling stock tips and giving sales presentations. She did say that although they have customers using the software for broadcast events such as training, it was getting more use in small group collaborative applications.
There is no integration of a registration system or attendance reporting, there is no interactive polling (other than the chat window), and there are no overlay white boards for annotating slides or screen shares. When you couple this with a lack of role-based permissions and chat controls, I cannot recommend the system for lead generation or public sign-up webinars.
But I could easily see the use of the software for educational applications as well as internal workgroup sessions where everyone is more casual and willing to be seen on camera. I asked Hannah if the software could accept more professional external video inputs from a studio camera and she said that they had the capability, although it required some configuration support from their team. Currently you need a separate computer for each video window, but a future release might add the ability to run several video feeds into a single presenter's machine. This would be great for a flip chart session where one camera could have a tight focus on the writing surface while another showed the presenter's face. The audience could see both views and concentrate on the appropriate one at any time.
HearMe is designed to compete on a price basis with Citrix GoToMeeting and WebEx MeetMeNow. Everybody seems to have settled on an entry point price of $49/month for a limited number of participants in unlimited numbers of meetings.
If sharing video is a priority for your meeting needs and you don't want to worry about the cost, inconvenience, and technical overhead of setting up a common-room videoconferencing solution, HearMe could be an inexpensive way to get into the game.
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