From Facetime to family time: the rise of the video-call

Posted by Peter Cochrane on February 15, 2011

Sue Tabbitt, Cisco, 15 Feb 2011

Talk to the leading technology visionaries and it's a case of when rather than if video-calls will overtake audio as the standard means of remote, voice-based communication. Ask analysts and the average user, however, and there's a lot more skepticism. Whatever the technical advances, video communications will only ever have niche appeal, they argue.

So, who's right?

The believer

In the 'for' corner is Professor Peter Cochrane, former chief technology officer at UK telecoms giant BT and now a futurologist and technology investor .An extensive consumer of video calls in both his personal and business life, Cochrane believes he provides a good model of how people will use video communications in 5-10 years.

Separated from his wife for long periods at a time, the couple regularly set up a video link between their respective hotel rooms, which they leave open for whole evenings so they can chat naturally while moving around the room - just as they would if at home. Says Cochrane, "We haven't designated a fixed time to sit in front of a camera; we're simply being with each other."
Video must add value for the participants, he notes. This may mean that its primary uses are in ways we can't yet imagine. Holding a tiny smartphone at arm's length for a video-call while on the move is unlikely to be one of them, he adds.

Yet it is inappropriate applications like these which are leading others to question the ultimate scope of video communications.

The skeptic

Dean Bubley, founder of Disruptive Analysis in London, is a self-confessed video skeptic. "I think we'll see a ceiling of maybe 10% of fixed calls and 5% of mobile calls eventually getting to video," he says. "If two people are trying to conduct a video call while mobile, neither will be able to walk or drive at that time, which doesn't help. Then there are the social constraints – there are plenty of times when it's just not appropriate to see each other."

"Cultural acceptance comes down to control."
Rob Bamforth, , Quocirca.

Bubley is so resistant to the medium that his office webcam is taped up. "I see no personal value in video communications," he says.

But perhaps this is because the telecoms industry has yet to identify the golden applications. "We're still at a stage where we're saying 'This video stuff is great – you can do anything!', says Rob Bamforth, principal analyst at UK-based IT research organization, Quocirca . "What we need to do now is define what those things are."

Context & control

Add context, and video comes into its own, as it did for Bamforth when he untethered his webcam from his desktop and brought it into the kitchen on his laptop. A long way from loved ones, he and his wife would connect with their elderly parents while cooking dinner. They, in turn, were happy simply to sit back and feel part of this intimate family time.

"Think of the way teenagers use Skype and instant messaging, or even their Xboxes, to 'hang out' with each other," he says. Sometimes, the company is as important as the conversation. That can be hard to maintain through an audio-only channel, where silence is hard to read.

"Cultural acceptance comes down to control," Bamforth adds. In the workplace, this could be overcome by the ability to switch flexibly from one mode to another, 'escalating' an audio-only call to include web conferencing or video when a participant wants to show something.

Video-calling will get a further boost as the technology continues to move off PCs, making it more accessible for the broader population. It won't be long before families will be making video-calls through their large HD TV screens, Professor Cochrane notes.

Improving call quality

The requisite technology exists today; what's needed now is for the telecoms industry to commit to improving the quality of experience, Cochrane says. "For it to feel as 'real' as possible, you need fantastic quality – very low latency to avoid jerkiness, good tonal quality of voice and enough detail to appreciate someone's gaze, laughter lines, etc. Video won't reach its full potential until people can fall in love through it, and that requires investment."

In the meantime, developments in pure audio communications should not be downplayed, according to Bubley of Disruptive Analysis. "We're gradually moving to better-quality audio – HD and improved acoustics," he notes. "The next big thing will be when someone like Google does real-time translation in the cloud – where one person can speak in German and the other in English, and understand each other. Now that would be huge."

Fast fact: By 2015, there will be 29M smartphone video users (Juniper Research: Next Generation Smartphones: Strategic Opportunities and Markets, 2010-2015.)

Sue Tabbitt is a freelance IT & business journalist located in the UK