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50 years later and still no one is video calling

Analysis The zeitgeist you have dialed doesn't exist
Tue Apr 22 2014, 17:05

Facetime on iPhone as video calling turns 50FIFTY YEARS AGO this week, AT&T demonstrated the first video calls at the World's Fair in New York. In 1964, the demonstration was more of a curiosity than anything else - the opportunity to talk to a stranger sitting on the other coast, at a similar facility in Disneyland.

Fifty years on, and most of us still would rather not see and be seen on a video phone. But why?

The concept of video telephony stretches back as far as the telephone itself, with theoretical systems being recorded as far back as the 1870s. Alexander Graham Bell dismissed the concept as nothing but a fairy tale, despite his own notes on an "electrical radiophone".

Fritz Lang included a sequence with a videophone in Metropolis, while George Orwell made the concept of CCTV and television convergence a thing of terror with the "Telescreens" of his novel 1984.

In the run up to World War II, Germany experimented with a fixed service between Berlin and Leipzig over coaxial cable, although this was in effect a closed circuit TV service.

It was the advent of the transistor that led to the arrival of AT&Ts Picturephone, which went on sale shortly after making its World's Fair debut.

It was a typical product of the American 60s zeitgeist. It was the time of the space race, where everyone wanted to live in the future and drink cups of coffee brewed by laser in cafes on the moon.

However, even at its peak the service had only 500 subscribers, and so despite being at the centre of classic predictions of the future, including a demonstration in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the service was quietly consigned to history in the mid-70s.

On mobile phones, the idea of reliable video calling arrived with 3G bandwidth, but the gulf between conceptually and actually reliable proved frustrating.

Apple's Facetime attempted to get around the issue by initially offering its service only over WiFi, however since the launch of iOS 6 use of the service over 3G arrived, though it has not been without its faults. 4G and later technologies should improve matters further.

Of course it's very difficult to mention video calling without mentioning Skype, the service that has brought the idea as close to mainstream as it has come to date. But even though 40 percent of Skype's calls are video, according to 2012 figures, Skype's small share of the overall world telecoms market makes the volume involved relatively tiny.

Theoretically, the concept of teleconferencing for businesses as a way of bringing clients from separated sites, or clients and customers together, seems a natural fit. However, even where facilities are available, it tends to be a last resort.

So, if the technology is a lot more stable and we've been dreaming about it for over 100 years, now that we've got it, why aren't we using it?

Historically there had always been cost as a barrier. The original Picturephone, for example, cost a staggering $16 per minute, but with Skype, Google Hangouts, and Facetime, cost has become trivial, though these services do raise another consideration - that of compatibility.

Proprietary technology is one of the biggest challenges affecting the market. Skype customers can't talk to Hangouts. Hangouts customers can't talk to video conferencing suites and no one can talk to Facetime except other Facetime users. The voice network is universally compatible and cross-platform, and while video and chat are both capable of being universal, all the players have chosen to keep their protocols proprietary just in case they can get leverage in the race to be number one.

Of course, none of those protocols are completely reliable yet. Setting up a conference call is a precarious business, usually dependent on at least three people from the IT department at each end and the knowledge that for the first ten minutes, one party will either not be able to see, not be able to hear, or both, or worse still, the image will be projected upside down.

Just last week, Google removed video calling from Glass citing reliability issues, and over Easter, Facetime users on iOS 6 found themselves cut off due to a technical fault.

Yet even if we cast all that aside and just imagine that we had a reliable, universal video calling service, would we use it? The answer in most cases is still an emphatic no - and the reason isn't technological, it's psychological.

There are hundreds and thousands of instances of face-to-face remote encounters in the movies - from Brains talking into his watch on Thunderbirds to Monica's billionaire boyfriend briefing his aides on Friends. But the reality of having a person at a remote location watching our every move makes us uncomfortable.

Non-verbal communication accounts for two-thirds of what we communicate. That means 66 percent of our thoughts are not communicated to the person at the other end of a regular telephone call. Written communication knocks that figure to nearer 90 percent, as we lose the tone of voice too.

Surely, then, you would think that we'd actively want to be seen, to fill in those gaps, but in actual fact we've proven ourselves rather fond of that barrier that we are able to put between ourselves and the other person. Particularly in business, our relationships need to be more guarded and the phone is an ideal way to avoid opening ourselves with full communications. With a video call we're having to remember to make eye contact with someone who isn't there, make our body language reflect how we want to appear, avoid making rude gestures on camera. And all of that combined is hard work.

The same cannot be said of a face-to-face meeting - behaviours come to us naturally and subconsciously in human interaction. But how do we react to a screen on a wall that is inanimate, but is also another human? It takes a lot more thought and conscious effort. Think back to the last time you made a video call, if indeed you ever have. In a quick straw poll, we found that most people had only ever video-called a significant other. That's because they are the only people we trust with our whole selves.

Of course there's also the issue of the cyclops, a fixed camera staring at us from the conference wall, always casting the doubt in our minds, "Is that thing on?" In this age where our privacy is so treasured and so threatened, that level of paranoia is inevitable. Many modern smart TVs come with a camera built-in now, giving an uncomfortable air that perhaps, though thirty years late, Orwell was bang on the money.

Most recently, Edward Snowden became the highest profile user of a telepresence device, the idea of a video call, but with the addition of a robotic mobile apparatus, almost crossing over into the realms of cybernetics.

But is society changing? Is video calling becoming more acceptable? Not really. Unlike many modern concepts that the so-called digital natives have embraced to their uploaded and shared selves, happily giving out more personal data than their parents would ever dream of, the concept of a live video call seems strange and certainly far from the norm.

So for the foreseeable future, video calling will, and always should be reserved for last resorts and those most special occasions, ones of celebration and positivity - never of conflict or negotiation. We're culturally not ready yet to engage as humans except in actual face to face conversation.

After all, the immortal Charles Dickens wrote, "Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true." µ


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