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Video-phones used to be the stuff of science-fiction. In the 1960s the movie 2001: a Space Odyssey, one character calls home from a payphone on the way to the Moon. Of course it was a video-phone, and he was able to have a video conference with his daughter, in colour, over the many thouands of kilometres back to Earth. In real-life it was still another 20 years before commercial videophones really started to come along, as part of ISDN telephony. Like the telepresence systems of today, these were largely confined to a special room in the office where you had to gather to have a videoconference.
These days the equipment is commonplace. On the desk in front of me I have two cellphones with front-facing cameras (from Nokia and Sony Ericsson) that I could pick-up and use right now for video calling. Also VoIP has done its bit to popularize video calling, including offerings from companies like Skype, Oovoo and Fring. There are at least three computers within a few paces now, that I could use to take part in a videocall or videoconference. Still, with all this technology, cheap and in our hands, we still rarely use it, and why is this? I don't know the answers, so I'd be happy to hear your comments too. This is what I think:
1. Some things are best done in person. Networking and spending time with people is the way that we build friendship and trust, and it's how we build working relationships, and how we come to feel a sense of community with other people. Videoconferencing can be an adjunct to this (for example working with people that we already know), but will never entirely replace the feeling of "being there".
2. People like to travel. The pain of flying is really very great now, with officials X-raying everything in sight and making us unpack and repack everything on the way to the plane. On the other hand, it is stimulating to go to a different place and have different experiences. I have some of my best ideas while in a new environment.
3. Video conferencing is not as involving. It's not like being there. You do feel somewhat like a spectator, a watcher of TV. The flipside of this, is that it is more involving than a telephone conference.
4. It's more invasive than other forms of communication. Email is the least invasive. Instant Messaging (IM) is more invasive, requiring realtime response. The telephone is more invasive than IM, since it needs all of the attention of the other person; you will find people using IM in conference sessions, or during meetings, but rarely someone taking a phonecall in the same setting. Finally video conferencing is the most invasive, since people are looking at your face, and will know if you're wandering around the room, or practicing your golf swing.
I think this goes to the heart of the videoconferencing problem: it has its own social rules, and most of us are not yet familiar enough with its use to feel really comfortable with it. The technology has raced ahead and (as sometimes happens), the social aspects still have to catch up.
Let me share with you a few examples of the recent applications of video that I found surprising and useful:
1. A man has a boat moored in a marina, and was worried about security when the site is unmanned. The solution he came up with was to use a cheap mobile phone that has video-calling capability. He can make a video call to this phone whenever he wants to, and "see what the camera sees".
2. Recently, I attended an event in Amsterdam where we had a wine tasting with a difference: the wine master (Karl of Elwood Wines) was not with us in person, but conducted the tasting over a videolink from his office in the UK. This was a fun session, and we were able to get instruction and ask questions, without Karl having to spend 5 hours travelling to us.
3. A family I know use video calling to connect their children with the grand-parents. Children change so fast, that it's great to be able to get together more and "see" each other in this way.
Will we ever see the "video phone box" as in the 2001 movie? Well no, this is still working on the assumption that telco equipment is expensive and needs to be shared in that way. The future will be much more surprising, with each of us carrying our own mobile video devices in our pockets and briefcases. We'll use video wherever, and whenever we want.