Ming the Merciless was an arch space villain with drooping mustachios. He was obviously Oriental, a holdover from the old days of the Yellow Peril and the Fu Man Chu mysteries. What we particularly liked about this sci-fi cliffhanging thriller wasnt just the fake model rocket ship spewing sparks. It was Mings sinister, triangular television screen. With a buzzing of electricity, the screen grew cloudy and Mings fearsome face appeared. This was better than radio and was long before television.
What we didnt know then was that German technicians had already experimented with video phones. In the 1940s, Germany was ahead of the technological curve. It was possible for someone in Berlin to talk face-to-face with someone else in the country via a video connection.
The experiment ended in World War II when the allies bombed the huge Berlin television antenna. After that, television phones were the subject of speculative gee-whiz technology. Women thought: Gosh, what if I get a call and my hair isnt fixed or Im not dressed?
Now, thanks to free Internet software, you can turn your computer into a videophone. All you need is free software from Skype.com, a web cam, microphone, and broadband high-speed Internet service. It wont work with a dial-up Internet connection.
To get Skype, just google Skype.exe and download the program. It takes only minutes. Installation is easy, though I had to first upgrade to Internet Explorer 7 to be compatible. The software has a feature that allows you to test your microphone and your web cam; then you can add the email addresses of contacts.
Once your contacts are set up with your email address its a simple matter to click on the telephone icon. Youll hear the beep-beep of the call. When your target answers, shades of Ming the Merciless! Theres their face in a small screen and in a smaller one where you can see in a small box if your hair needs combing with what your system is sending.
You can use Skype to call regular telephones anywhere in the world for pennies per call, or simply phone your online friends for free computer-to-computer chats.
Some of the old Flash Gordon episodes turn up now as one dollar bargain DVDs in thrift stores. I cant remember which century Flash Gordon is supposed to have awakened up in after being put into hibernation by Dr. Zarkovs sleep gas, but here we are: free long-distance video conversations around the world from your laptop. Or, check out Skypes new Videophone -- a hand-held device with built-in webcam, speaker and screen.
I must find some fake droopy mustachios to stick on my face to surprise my brother next time he calls. Welcome to the 21st century, AD. Sinister laugh. Kill Flash Gordon!