NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, November 2012
Free Online Conferencing Software
By Ira Wilsker, Radio Show Host,
Columnist, College Professor and deputy sheriff
(click to email author)


In recent months I have done several presentations for organizations outside of my local area. While a few have been live presentations, requiring significant travel time and expense, most have been done remotely over the internet using a variety of free software utilities. While the free use of most of these software utilities is often expressly limited to personal use, commercial use is available for a nominal fee; this nominal fee for commercial use is but a tiny fraction of what a distant face-to-face meeting would cost.

Most of these distant presentations that I have done originate from my home, and are for non-profit computer clubs on a variety of topics. While I have mostly used the free version of one particular software utility, I have just recently started to experiment with another.

The utility that I have been using the most is the "Online Meeting and Online Presentation" build of Team Viewer, available from teamviewer.com. Versions of Team Viewer are available for Windows (also certified for Windows 8), Apple operating systems (Macs), and Linux computers. For smart device users, including smart phones and tablets, there are also free versions of Team Viewer for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. These free downloads are for private use only (the business version is not free), and can have up to 25 remote participants. Since this virtual meeting is conducted entirely online, including both audio and video, there are no location restrictions, and no travel expense. While I have exclusively shown PowerPoint presentations with a voice overlay at these presentations, it also can be used for other purposes such as family meetings, training and educational purposes, and the joint production of documents or other projects.

After downloading and installing Team Viewer, the program is opened and a selection of tabbed options is available; Remote Control, and Meeting. I select the Meeting tab, which opens and displays "Host Meeting" with a button that says "Start Instant Meeting." A new window opens which displays a unique meeting ID number, which can be sent to the other participants. The other people participating must also download and install the free version of Team Viewer, install it, open it, and click on the "Meeting Tab", enter the "Meeting ID" that I gave them, and the meeting is joined.

On my computer monitor is the control screen that allows me to determine what is displayed on the other participants' screens. For my PowerPoint presentations I select the "Presentation screen" feature which displays my screen on the remote computers; since I have PowerPoint loaded and running, the others see only my PowerPoint presentation. On the "Screen Sharing" bar is a small gear-looking icon that displays the screen sharing options; while the default settings (no need to select anything) are typically totally adequate for most presentations, options are shown to optimize display speed and quality, as well as to record the meeting. Other selection bars are available, which offer additional features such as exchange files during the presentation ("File Box" bar); show videos or camera images ("My Video"); control the audio ("Voice over IP"); conduct a conference call ("Conference call", there is a five cent per minute charge), and an online drawing feature ("Whiteboard").

When I am the presenter, I create a meeting ID and send it to the participants, typically the host at a distant computer club meeting. I open my PowerPoint, and they see precisely what is on my computer screen. I have had great success using the built in VoIP (Voice over IP) function to be able to speak to the remote viewers and listen to their comments and questions. The integral VoIP function allows the presenter to control his audio output and input between microphone and speakers; it may take some tweaking to get the microphone and speaker to work well together such that feedback and barrel echo is minimized or eliminated. While a high quality dedicated microphone delivers the best voice quality, it must be positioned to minimize picking up the sound from the computer's speaker. The VoIP control in Team Meeting has a pair of volume sliders (microphone and speakers) to manipulate for optimal sound. On several presentations I have used a good quality boom headset (headphones and a microphone in one unit) in order to minimize any feedback sounds, but still allow me to hear the audiences' questions and comments.

For group presentations in front of an audience, I conduct the presentation from my home computer, and the host typically has a computer (almost always a laptop or notebook computer with Windows, Linux, or a Mac) connected to the internet, a video projector, speakers, and a microphone. With this type of setup, the audience can see my PowerPoint on a large screen, hear my voice through the remote speakers, and I can hear their questions and comments over my headphones or speakers. Based on experience with this arrangement, I strongly recommend a brief rehearsal prior to the event to insure that everything works well together, especially the sound system on both ends.

While I have no significant experience using it, Skype (skype.com) offers a free internet conference function. According to a posting on TechSupportAlert.com, "Skype - The Forgotten Free Desktop Sharing App", Skype has a little known feature that enables free remote presentations between Skype enabled devices. The basic version of Skype is available for free for almost all intelligent devices and computers with an internet connection, including devices running Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iPad, iPhone, Symbian, and Windows Phone. As long as Skype is installed on both ends, calls and what Skype calls "screen sharing" is free.

Screen sharing has multiple uses, ranging from remotely helping someone fix his computer to performing remote presentations. According to the Skype website, screen sharing is as simple as 1 - 2 - 3. The first step is to register (free), download and install Skype. Since there is a version of Skype for almost every computer or smart device, this should not be a problem. Step two is to make a call or video call (free between devices with Skype). The third and final step in completing a "shared screen" is to press the "+" (plus) button on the menu, and select "Share Screens". While I have not personally done a presentation using Skype, I am aware that Skype is among the most widely used remote presentation utilities. One common example is the live video news reports from distant countries that is shown routinely on the TV news.

Between Skype and Team Viewer, it may be quite possible and practical to have remote, live presentations without the expense and time needed to travel to the remote locations. Both of these products are worthy of a try.

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