After 46 Years Of Unfulfilled Hype And Promises, Is Video Calling Finally Ready?

from the and-here-we-go-again dept

With the recent launch of the HTC Evo and (more importantly) the announcement of the iPhone 4 — both of which include front-facing cameras and video calling software — lots of people are now asking (yet again) if video calling is finally going to catch on. Of course, everyone points to same things: it’s been a long time since AT&T introduced the first video phone, back in 1964. Six years ago, on the 40th anniversary of AT&T’s intro of the phone, I wrote a column that was skeptical of the 2004 hype around video calling. You may (or may not) recall that when various UK mobile operators were all rolling out their 3G networks, video calling was a big selling point. And, as I noted in that column, the only people who seemed to be using it, were guys calling up women to expose themselves (see? ChatRoulette users exposing themselves is nothing new…).

And, of course, lots of folks are pointing out all of the standard reasons why video calling has never taken off: people don’t want to have to “look good” just to use the phone. They don’t want to have to even think about it. Slashdot points us to a typical story about how people in the UK won’t adopt it — and that’s no surprise. As I noted in that column six years ago, it was all the rage (from operators) in the UK, and almost no one used it. So the UK has already gone through this whole video calling craze.

Now, as someone who’s been skeptical of video calls for ages, I’ll admit that I’m still skeptical of this go around. But… I may finally be hedging those bets, and admitting that I can see some uses for video calling. I just don’t think it’s what most people think they’d use it for. I still don’t see any real market for your everyday video calling, adding video functionality to the calls people make on a daily basis. There’s just so little benefit, and enough potential downside that I just don’t see people doing it. But I can see some interesting other uses, including opening up new possibilities. For example: tech support. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to call my home broadband provider to complain about downtime — and the conversation almost always involves “what are the lights on the modem doing” or “where is this cable plugged into” or whatever. I could definitely see value in just being able to show them what’s going on. Same thing with calls to doctors. Your kid has a rash? Why not do a video call with a nurse to see if you really need to bring him into the doctor? And, of course, as more and more people have discovered with webcams, you have a whole new world of communicating via video (it’s becoming more important for families, for example) — and people will use video phones to set up more mobile video services for broadcasting themselves live to larger audiences (rather than just one to one).

Beyond the standard “vanity” and “looks” reasons why video calling never took off, there was really an infrastructure problem. You had a serious “empty room” problem. No one would buy a video phone if no one else had one. But what’s happening now is that smartphones are becoming advanced enough that people are happily buying them for a whole variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the video calling. And, because of that, the infrastructure to do more regular video calls is actually becoming more widespread. With ubiquitous built-in video for phones, I can actually see more people starting to use it. I still don’t think most people will use it on everyday calls. In fact, I still don’t think it will really be that big of a feature in terms of usage. But I’m not yet convinced that it will totally crash and burn this time around. Could it be… after 46 years.. that some element of video calling’s time has come?

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Comments on “After 46 Years Of Unfulfilled Hype And Promises, Is Video Calling Finally Ready?”

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Liquid (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

yeah but the average consumer only wants to deal with dialing a number. Not opening the application, and then type the number, and hope their broadband carrier can handle the traffic.

The tech nerds on the other hand, and those that are hard core “Free” people will use skype. with the way net neutrality is going you will see a decreased performance in video quality, etc… just like with VoIP calls from vonage.

ChurchHatesTucker (profile) says:

facing the wrong way

The premise of video calling has always been that you’d want to look at the person you’re talking to, while the practical aspect is that you’d want to look at whatever the other person is looking at. We seem to be at the point where you can do both, and that will be the simple, overlooked thing that launches an industry.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: facing the wrong way

“The premise of video calling has always been that you’d want to look at the person you’re talking to, while the practical aspect is that you’d want to look at whatever the other person is looking at.”

Well, I imagine that if two people have never met video calling can be used to first introduce them to each other. There could be some phone dating services going on here that use video calling perhaps, or perhaps people can use it to introduce friends to other friends.

The thing is that when you talk to someone on the phone you probably already know how they look, so you don’t learn anything new from looking at them. But when that person is showing you something on the phone they are likely showing you something new that they believe you haven’t seen before or because they think it is easier and quicker to express what they are looking at with a video than with words to help you better identify what they are looking at (ie: tech support).

Haywood (profile) says:

Re: facing the wrong way

Done properly it could even take some of the danger out of talking while driving. When you are having a conversation with someone in the car they tend to react when you drift into the path of an oncoming vehicle or a pedestrian walks into your path, and stuff like that. People on the phone do not, nor do they even shut up when you are in a demanding situation, which is part of why it is dangerous.

Jason Buberel (profile) says:

Re: facing the wrong way

Excellent point. In the years I spent at Motorola developing mobile phone software, we launched several (mostly for European markets) phones with front-facing cameras for video calling. Not one of them led to widespread adoption.

But the ability to quickly/temporarily ‘show something to the other person’ could open up all sorts of compelling uses in medicine, technical support, etc.

To be useful, it would require being able to turn the camera on/off easily during the call (“Just a sec, let me show you what I see…”) and to use both front and rear cameras.

Anonymous Coward says:

The barriers haven’t been technical, they are social. Most (not all) people simply don’t want to stare at other people when talking through video technology.

The company I work at has had video cameras on every PC and every conference room for 4 years now, and they simply aren’t used for interoffice calls. We have clients that occasionally want to make use of it, but the vast majority still prefer Phones + computer meetings like Webex.

theangryintern (profile) says:

Re: Sexting

true, but chances are those “amorous-but-apart” couples have been using Skype for while now. We have a Sys Admin at work here that just started last year. He hasn’t been able to sell his house in Portland, so his family is still up there while he’s down here in San Diego. He uses Skype all the time to talk to his family and see his kids.

Anonymous Coward says:

Much of the tech support issues could just be solved if you can simply send a still image. Pictures would probably often work for the doctor thing as well. Also, I can imagine that if women are at a store and they see a dress they like they would take pictures of it and send it to their friends. I’m sure people will find all sorts of other strange reasons to use it, like perhaps if they see some movie star or someone at a mall and want to capture or record them and send or stream it to friends. Video is good with tech support if there are blinking lights and you want to better express exactly how the lights are blinking. The thing is you have to figure out what can video calls be used for that regular still pictures can not. Video broadcasting might be a good thing as well, but I’m not sure the extent that current cell phones enable this for a reasonable price. Also, those broadcasting would probably be using better equipment than a phone to broadcast their show (perhaps over the Internet) while those on the phone are simply watching it on their phone (perhaps over the Internet again).

Anonymous Coward says:

Video helps the words communicate better, with body language and facial movement added in. The world will be richer for it when video calls become an entrenched part of our lives to some degree. If the time is right now, finally, it may be because of changes in economies and information technology which facilitate more working-from-home. Remember, the iPhone and other devices have come to us at a time when work/home is being blended in an unprecedentedly thorough mix, and so if you are at “work” while on the road or at home, then the reservations about having to be visually on-line will be irrelevant for these business calls, since it may become normative to be working under visually preposterous conditions i.e. bed hair and no shirt, like me right now ^_^


SO this is why they spent a billion on the g20 crap

the tech wasnt ready
so instead of a major video conferance they spend on a fake lake
and ya know we actually discussed why terrorists would want to kill the 3300 journalists holed up in and aorund this so called lake and ….we thought they neeed people to report the bombings right?
so instead of actually showing these people canada they BUY and have hollywood create it for them.



Jay (profile) says:

I still remember video phones...

$400 for a phone with a cord. It did video conferencing like no one’s business. Here’s the problem with the damned things:

– You could only use it with a certain brand
– Latency was a huge turnoff
– Once you buy it, there were certain fees (broadband) that increased the price significantly.

All in all, it wasn’t a good purchase. Perhaps if AT&T or Panasonic or whoever sold phones could make a universal standard that would fit the phones. Sadly, collusion on this front would interfere with profit even if it’s for a greater good.

JackSombra (profile) says:

In many ways it already has taken off, just it’s limited to PC/internet (skype) because the Telco’s have not got the technical infrastructure in place to handle it even semi reliably

And working around that by limiting video calling to wireless (IPhone) will not make people take it up much more either. If you are near a wireless router you can access for vid calling, you are probably near a PC with a cam where you can get 30 times bigger/better picture

Latest mobile phones with vid calling will be just another useless feature and will remain so until the telco’seriously upping their capacity/reliability, maybe when they start rolling out ‘8G’?

Mojo says:

Well, until you can get decent results out of 3G video calling, the “spontaneity” of showing a dress to a friend or a celebrity spotting won’t happen because the iPhone video calling is wifi only. So, for the most part, calls will be happening from people at home TO people at home.

Once millions of people have the new iPhone everyone is going to want to try out the video call, so there will be a sudden rash of use, but I think soonafter it will stop as people realize there just isn’t much merit to staring at a talking head while you converse.

In fact, as I sit here with my iPhone in my hand, pretending i’m on a video call, it just feels awkward. I don’t think the psychology of audio-only phone calls is going to be erased any time soon.

It will have its use for special events and situations, but I doubt it will become the new standard for phone calls for a long time, if ever.

Wesha (profile) says:

I claim that video calling well NEVER catch on.


…not seeing the other person is a BENEFIT, don’t you get it?

1) without video, it’s easier to tell lies (to one’s wife about where the person is; to a rejected applicant that “we will call you next week”, etc etc etc);
2) in about 90% of all calls, people just don’t feel like being seen. Take me for example — on most of the incoming calls I take, I’m not groomed, shaved, dressed, or all of the above; most of the outgoing calls, I make while on the loo (need to use that time for something useful, you know).

Vincent Clement says:

Video calling will not take off. It requires you to focus your attention on a camera while talking with the person. With audio only, you could multi-task. You could browse the web, cook a meal, sort laundry or play a video game. Video calling makes that very difficult.

Heck, many of us don’t even use our cellphones to call people. No, we have gone back to writing words via text messages or using services such as BlackBerry Messenger.

Anonymous Coward says:

Ease of use and interoperability

While infrastructure is certainly a big issue, ease of use and interoperability are bigger problems. Seems like most folks who really want video calling are using Skype these days. But you have to have all the prerequisite stuff, internet, skype, web cam – unfortunately, getting to that point is still not something my mom can do by herself. But moving forward, the bigger issue is interoperability. I fyou have Skype, I have the iphone4 and someone else has a Cisco video over IP phone then we can’t have a video call – we all have the right stuff and know how to use it, it just doesn’t work. Make it easy to use and ubiquitous and people will use it.

Phiip Storry (profile) says:

Showing peope things?

I don’t believe the “showing people things” argument.

Because it costs too much.

In the UK, I could “show you” via a videocall at 50p a minute. Ouch. Or I could send you an MMS, for 10p.

If I need to show you, which method will I choose?

MMS costs have gone down, and when I last checked the number of MMS messages being sent was going up. (Services like twitpic may be changing that.)

The argument against “show me” via MMS is the low resolution of an MMS. But video resolution isn’t much higher in this case.

Frankly, if I need to show you for anything diagnostic, a picture uploaded to twitpic or emailed to you is the better option.

Video calling isn’t wanted socially, because it’s intrusive and expensive. If you make it cheap, it merely becomes intrusive. Video call me and I’m likely to not answer, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

I’ve had the option to video call for a long time now, and never made or received one. I don’t think that’s about to change.

Niall (profile) says:

Re: Showing peope things?

I’ve had the option to videocall with an HTC phone for 4 years now, so this is hardly new. Talk about “OMGZ there’s a computer network that allows you to talk to people and watch videos” type situation – or like US consumers discovering SMS a decade after Europe. 😉

I’ve so far used it once, purely to test it out, though the quality was lousy. Lack of any real reason to use it, along with it being rather expensive put it firmly into the category of “nice-but-useless toy”. The fact that 95% of my friends had no facility to do video calls also contributed to its lack of use. Add to that the problems of talking/hearing when using it for video (who wants to see my ear close-up?) (although you could use a hands-free to get round that) and it really hasn’t been a killer app by any measure.

But then, I don’t use MMS either, mainly because phones seem such a pain to actually configure to work with it (and I used to work in customer support on this!). Plus I’m not 20 any more, so again, just gadget-y 🙂

Alan Gerow (profile) says:

I don’t even like the voice aspect of phones, let alone adding video. I prefer asynchronous, non-intrusive forms of communication like e-mail or SMS. I’m actually working to put distance between myself and other people with tools like Google Voice.

Some people may have little to do and want to watch people talk, but I have crap to get done. I don’t have time to watch scripted television, let alone a relative recapping how they’ve been working on their garden.

At least with Twitter, I can skim past people’s small talk banter … but on a phone, I’m an audience of one that should respond, and if you add video then I’m on performance to not only pretend like I’m listening … but now I’d have to pretend like I care!

Big Al says:

What's all the hype?

Contrary to what this blog seems to think, the world doesn’t end beyond the US borders. In Australia we have been using video calling for quite a few years now, across networks and at a cost comparable to standard call rates.
In fact, my carrier makes no differentiation between video and voice calls as far as pricing is concerned.
Hence the disappointment many expressed here when the iPhone was released with no front ca,era – what werre they thinking?

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