CU-SeeMe - Videoconferencing Over the Internet


It is said that the wonderful thing about technology is that it is always moving forward, usually faster than we can keep up with. This can be seen with the advent of Computer Mediated Communication and it's development over the last 20 years. At first there was computer based communications using e-mail over small networks. As networks grew bigger and the desire for true real-time communications grew, users could use the text based 'talk' program to chat with each other without waiting for a response. Next, the Internet Relay Chat was developed as a need to have a multiuser 'talk' program. Soon after programs such as Vocaltec's Internet Phone allowed users to actually send voice over the Internet in real time. Today however, we have an application which combines both vocal and text based communications and adds the element of video in an attempt to create the feeling that the people you are chatting with are truly there. This application is appropriately called CU-SeeMe.

CU-SeeMe is described as a videoconferencing application that can be used by anyone with a Macintosh or PC and an Internet connection. It was developed at Cornell University (hence, the CU in CU-SeeMe) as an experiment by a consortium to see if video could be sent efficiently over the Internet. As with many applications built today, it was released freely over the Internet to allow users to test it and report and bugs it may have. With the application, you can connect with another user or with multiuser reflectors and participate in real-time videoconferencing. CU-SeeMe supports both text based and vocal communication methods, but it's main draw is it's ability to send video over the Internet. This requires a desktop videocamera which costs around $100, and is now available at most retail computer outlets. Factoring in all of the above, and the fact that the software itself is freely available over the Internet, it is no wonder that it is becoming a popular form of communication among Internet users.

The Draw

I was first drawn to CU-SeeMe after reading an article about it in early 1995. Like most of the users who frequent it, I had been through all of the text based realms that the Internet had to offer. I couldn't hack the fantasy based MUD's and MOO's because I was more interested in meeting real people. Usenet news and Bulletin Boards were too slow, and although IRC offered real-time multiuser chat with real people, there was always that uncertainty about who the person you were talking to really was. I always felt that if I could just see the other people, or hear them even, that it would be much easier to communicate with them and make some real friends. Enter CU-SeeMe. Real-time videoconferencing with people all over the world for $100? Who could pass this up? I certainly didn't and I've been off and on ever since. I feel that most of the people on there now are in the same frame of mind.

CU-SeeMe as a Virtual Community

One of the great features of CU-SeeMe is the ability to take part in a Virtual Community by connecting to a reflector. A reflector is in basic terms, a computer connected to the Internet running software which allows other users to connect and chat with each other in real-time. By connecting to a reflector, users can videoconference with more than 30 users at one time and participate in discussions ranging from general conversation to science. Most reflectors available today are open to anyone and accomodate a variety of users, from those without cameras or audio capability to users with color cameras and microphone equipped headsets. Reflectors are also for the most part, up 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Although there are a large number of reflectors available to join, only a few of them are populated with a lot of people. I decided to join the Cornell Reflector after finding out that it was the most populized. Apparently most users feel the same way.

Most communication takes place via a chat window, which is similar to a chat room type protocal. Anything a users types into the window can be read by all the other users on the reflector. Much of the community building, explanation of rules and etiquette, and communication takes place within this text window. Although voice can be transmitted clearly and quickly through CU-SeeMe, it is generally not used and at times frowned upon since most of the users are in public labs, at work in offices, or cannot receive audio at all. In this respect, this application takes a step backwards into the text based realm of earlier methods of computer mediated communication. However, it is again the concept of being able to see the other people that makes all the difference in this case, a concept which has never really been seen before.

How does being able to see the other person change the way you communicate with them? It can be seen that in all other forms of computer mediated communication that the people are basically anonymous and being anonymous leaves a person to do or say anything they want. Being anonymous allows you to do such things as lie about yourself and treat others with disrespect without any fear of repercussion. For the most part in the computer mediated communication world, being anonymous allows a person to not take any responsibility for their actions, unlike the real world. Thus, there is a lot of chaos occuring today in the text based communications forums. Flame wars and moderated newsgroups are not uncommon in the Usenet world. IRC gives users the ablity to kick and ban people from a channel. CU-SeeMe rarely has any of that however simply because being able to see the other person no longer makes you anonymous. The people you are talking to can see what you look like, they can see where you're at, and most importantly, they can see your world. Thus, for the most part, people treat each other with respect and try to carry on a regular conversation with them. Besides, who knows? You might just see that guy you were acting obnoxious to on CU-SeeMe on the street someday.

Controls and Safegaurds

No CU-SeeMe reflector is Utopia of course. Just like in real life, there will always be obnoxious and disinhibited people. Most of the problems arise from the "lurkers", the people who participate in CU-SeeMe without cameras. Although a lurker is cameraless, they can still send voice and participate in the chat window and in general, lurkers act in an annoying manner simply because they cannot be seen. For the most part however, lurkers are ignored both vocally and in the text window. You can turn off the reception of audio for one particular person and you can ignore then in the text window. After awhile, most of them leave the reflector after realizing that there's no point in participating in a video based communications medium without any video.

Lurkers are not the only probem however. There are many people who do participate with cameras and take distasteful actions. What to do about them? There is one feature in CU-SeeMe that many people may wish they could use in real life. If you don't like someone you're looking at on the reflector, you can just close their window and never look at them again. Thus, this brings up one big factor and that is that people are constantly vying for attention on CU-SeeMe. Why go out and spend a hundred bucks on a camera if no one is going to look at you? Does it make sense then to annoy everyone so much that no one will pull up your window and check you out? Not really. As a result, most people will attempt to participate in a conversation favorable to all of the other members.


The community on CU-SeeMe itself is mostly made up of people who join often and eventually become well known to the other participants. These "regulars" are the one's who usually adopt the community standards set by the earlier regulars and inform the new users of what kind of behavior is expected. Those who don't adopt them are usually ignored. This provides a mostly friendly atmosphere in the community which is vital because it is a place that virtually anyone can join and participate in. The only criteria for membership in this community is that one have access to a computer and an Internet connection and know where the reflectors are. It is no surprise then to find that the demographics of the CU-SeeMe crowd pretty much match the demographics of Internet users. It is full of computer literate males ranging from college to middle age who have been using the Internet for quite awhile. However, the female population is growing steadily, just as in the real life Internet population.

Most Virtual Communities have some kind of stated purpose about what their goals are and what users will get out of it in the end if they participate long enough. CU-SeeMe is relatively young however and it is still in the experiemental stages. Thus nothing has really been set in the way of concrete goals and purposes. Most of the people participating in it are there to participate in something that is new, different, and most importantly, entertaining. In a way, those are the goals of the community: To maintain a friendly atmosphere where users can freely chat with each other and participate in a community that the participants find fascinating. That in itself is what builds the community to what it is today, a place where you can try out CU-SeeMe and where new users are welcome in hope of spreading the word and attracting more users. Building friendships and offering advice is certainly welcome and encouraged while harrasment is not. This was certainly the implied value and norm of this community.

It is interesting to note that the Cornell Reflector I participated on was not limited to users in the United States. Participants from as far away as Australia and even Antartica frequented the reflector often. However the talk was geared towards those who could speak english and those who were familiar with the American culture. There was no consistent political, ethnic, or social structure to the people who were members of the community however. It was a mix of everything. Most people say that this diversity is what makes the Internet so great.


What kinds of topics are brought up when there's so much diversity? Anything and everything for the most part. Of course the usual Internet banter still reigns just as it does in most other Virtual Communities. Such things as: Where are you from, what school do you go to, how long have you been doing this, etc. are brought up often among users of the reflector, but it also ranges from the serious to the very weird. If you were to categorize it, you could call it talk about life. Below is sample of the talk you might find on the Cornell CU-SeeMe reflector:

Kimberly: hey brian, you in beaver hall?
Kimberly: hi ming
X!: I like names that aren't mainstream
NorM B: whoops, ref loaded - cya
X!: and I have a really mainstream name
Surfer Joe: Snows new home, huh?
Kimberly: x, his roomie's name is jeph
FLOYD: you're not
SnowGirl: Oh, I love the cure... I have 5 of their cds... and Bizarre Love Traingle is one of my favorites
Brian: Kimberly: Nope, why?
SnowGirl: Missed the Cure twice though
SnowGirl: New Order all the way
In other words, the topics discussed would be equivalent to perhaps a party setting, where random thoughts and statements about life are tossed around randomly and discussed.

Gender and Roles

Much of the CU-SeeMe population is made up of college aged males. Thus, the growing number of females on the reflector are regularly hit on often. The added element of video now means of course that they can be seen and it is the more attractive females that get hit often. Much of it could be termed as a bunch of bad pickup lines. This was not usually tolerated by the other users however and guys who did try to pick up women were usually adminished by the other users, both male and female. The females on the other hand just wanted to chat and experiment with the program. I have yet to see a female try to hit on a male as heavily as it has happened the other way around. Perhaps a reflection of real life.

Much of the harrasment that was observed was geared towards females. Such statements as "will you take off your shirt", and the like occasinally floated by the chat window. I have yet to see anyone comply with this however.

Males were usually the one's who were quick to admonish the offensive users in most cases, perhaps taking an authoritarian role although in the world of the CU-SeeMe reflector there really is no way of becoming a true authoritarian. Females occasionally joined in this role, but not as quickly or as often as the males did.

CU-SeeMe and Real Life

How does CU-SeeMe compare to communities in real life? Even though it covers many of the human senses and almost bridges the distance as a long distance chat medium, it still misses out on many of the factors that a real community has. For one thing, a CU-SeeMe reflector is merely a place where you can connect to and chat with other people. It is not subdivided into such things as like common interests or groups. Nothing is really organized in this world. Instead you either stay on and try to join the conversation or you don't. In itself however, it does contain a community of people of like interests, that interest being computers and communication using a computer. However, this is something that comes with being a user, it is not an organized effort.

The other drawback of CU-SeeMe is that it's reserved for those who posses a up to date computer system and a high-speed internet connection. Although it claims to be workable at the standard 14.4 modem speed, this is a far underestimation of what is truly needed to be able to use CU-SeeMe for effective communication. Unfortunately at this time, most of the people who posses this type of equipment are college students at universities and people who work in a computer/internet related field. Thus, at this time, CU-SeeMe creates a very large social and knowledge gap between the haves and the have not's.

Connecting to a populated reflector may be a problem as well. The computers the reflectors are hosted on can only allow a certain number of people on at one time. A large amount of users may also slow down the framerate speeds that you send and receive to other users, causing communication problems. This is by far a perfect chat protocal, but nevertheless it works very well.

It is not uncommon to see this when trying to connect.

After observing many of the regulars who frequent this reflector however, I do get a genuine sense of caring and belonging. People do look out for each other while taking part in chatting with each other. Whether it's concern for a problem they have shared with everyone else, or whether it be a obnoxious user harrasing them, there is no hesitation about getting involved. It seems that being able to see the other person as well as talk with them helps build a good friendship that does include some degree of trust. It can also be observed that the people who do form friendships with each other do share the same kind of values and beliefs, whether it be to chat and make friends, or listen and help out others.


CU-SeeMe is truly a medium that is way ahead of it's time. Although it cannot truly take the place of a real life community, it does expose one to a diverse, and friendly community that a person can learn from. Since face to face interaction does exist, people can truly come to care and like a person they meet online. However, it is still argued that there are many factors that are not fulfilled when compared to real life interaction and participation in a community. In this case, it all comes down to a matter of tradeoffs. In real life, true bonds and friendship's can be formed, yet in most cases it is difficult to keep up with that friendship because of such things as distance, cost, and time. CU-SeeMe on the other hand does not depends on costs nor distance, and people have the ability to see and interact with each other no matter where they may be. However such things as touch, smell, and presence are lost.

We may never be able to replace true communities, however, a balance between a virtual and real life community may be a good alternative. We have the technology and we should use it to our advantage.

Meet Jeff

This is Jeff Nuckles, a former electronic media major and fellow website designer I met on CU-SeeMe. I became friends with him after I had checked out his amazing website one night. It is not uncommon for people to toss website addresses around in an attempt to have other people check them out and critique them. I suppose it's only natural when you get a bunch of people together who do nothing more than sit behind a computer. Jeff and I eventually began critiquing each other's designs and pointing out the error of our ways. In most cases it was me who had the shoddy design that needed improving, however I did take it constructively of course. In the end, I felt that Jeff helped me out immensely in what could very well be my future career. I have never met Jeff in real life and I probably never will, but after talking with him for so long, I don't doubt that we could carry on a discussion if we ever did meet.

Get CU-SeeMe

If you're at all interested in taking computer based chatting a step further, you may want to try CU-SeeMe for yourself. Possesion of a camera is not needed to observe what I have seen in the past month or so. As mentioned before, the software is free and all that is required is a computer and a decent Internet connection (28.8 will do, but ISDN and above is preferred). Mac users can grab the software here, PC users can grab it here. After downloading the software, lauch the CU-SeeMe application. A box will appear with a buch of checkboxes and a place to put an identifying title for yourself. Enter in a name and hit 'OK'. Next, go to the 'Conference' menu and select 'Connect'. In the IP Address box type in:

The address of the Cornell reflector. If it is busy, please keep trying. Eventually you will connect, usually within 2 minutes.


Other Resources

Yet another page created by Ming Chen. Everything you ever wanted to know about him can be found here.