Video communication has been a popular staple of science fiction at least since Flash Gordon's Spaceograph, 2001: A Space Odyssey's video call from the moon and, of course, Captain Kirk's calls from the Enterprise to Starfleet. AT&T had great hopes for the Picturephone which I remember seeing as a child at the 1964 New York World's Fair, but did not see again until I stumbled upon a (broken) one a decade later at the MIT Architecture Machine (the group that became the Media Lab). It turned out the Picturephone was too bulky, small, expensive, and difficult to use, at least for individual person-to-person communications.
Given the expense of setting up and operating a video link, it's not surprising that the first practical applications were in business and government. The 1964 movie Seven Days in May showed Burt Lancaster talking over a video link in his office to fellow members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but real government and business usage has to wait until Compression Labs and, later, PictureTel developed video compression technology that delivered reasonable quality video over commercially available data circuits. Given the five figure price tags, these systems were typical used by groups of people at each end, a trend that continues today with similarly priced "TelePresence" systems from Cisco and HP.
So what will it take to make video a mainstream tool for individual communications? People seem to want a richer form of interaction than they can get on the phone, hence the existence of the travel and convention industries, not to mention dating services, but there are a number of criteria that must be met before a video call becomes as popular as a phone call:
- Quality - The 30 frames per second and 525 lines (in the US) of broadcast television have set people's expectation for the minimum level of acceptable quality in video. Even while YouTube has set a lower standard, the adoption of HDTV has created a new awareness of quality. The good news is that as Moore's Law continues to increase the available computing power, quality can only improve.
- Bandwidth - when the Picturephone was launched commercially in 1970, it required 3 phone pairs and cost $125 per month (in 1970 dollars). Later versions required ISDN which was less expensive but difficult to obtain, especially in the US. Fortunately broadband Internet connections are now widely available for home as well as businesses. In fact, many people have more bandwidth at home than at the office.
- Convenience - To do a video conference, one must have a camera, microphone, and headphones or speakers. Most computers, especially laptops, come with the audio gear, and the camera if not included is available for $25-$99. A lot of people have a camera somewhere, although it doesn't do much good if it's not plugged in or readily available.
- Network effect. Bob Metcalfe observed that the value of a telecommunications network goes up with the square of the number of users. AT&T understood this when they lobbied the Congress for subsidies that guaranteed Universal Service, thus insuring that a phone subscriber would have someone to call. This is a social as well as practical phenomenon. Fax machines, email, instant messaging, and mobile phones became mainstream because they were perceived as mainstream, i.e. you were seen as some sort of Luddite if you didn't have one and your friends couldn't reach you
- Overcoming the shyness factor. Since the person at the other end can see whether you are paying attention, videoconferencing can be more stressful than a phone call. If you are using it at home, the other person can see what you are (not) wearing. Then there are people who just don't want to be on camera - perhaps the same people who will duck or put up their hand when you pull out a camera at a party. This may be largely a cultural and generation issue, and is already fading in an era where every mobile phone has a camera and people become accustomed to the routine exposure of social networks such as Facebook.
So have we made enough progress on all these fronts that personal video communications is ready for the big time? I'll relate some personal experiences which may help answer that question.
In the mid 1990's, Intel identified video as an application that would need lots of computing power and reasoned that if people started using a lot of video applications they would become ready customers for upgraded Intel processors. To do their own part in encouraging the use of video, Intel launched the ProShare personal video conferencing product. They did a lot of things right in producing a complete offering. They included everything in the box. In addition to the PC add-in card, the product came with a camera and an earbud headset. Intel worked with the phone companies to simplify the process of ordering ISDN, so that instead of a befuddled customer trying to specify a choice of options to an equally befuddled phone company rep, the customer could merely order "Intel Blue" and get a pre-specified configuration. To make sure there was someone to call, Intel seeded the tech community with ProShare systems and even produced an Executive Register of senior executives who had ProShare systems. Intel worked with companies such as Lotus to integrate ProShare with products such as Lotus Notes (this was my project), so a user initiated a video call directly from a contact list or email. Everything worked as advertised, but the concept did not catch on. It was just too much trouble to order ISDN, the hardware was expensive, and people just didn't have that burning desire to see each other. As processors became more powerful, competitors sprang up who could do all the video in software, and as the Internet became more ubiquitous the need for ISDN went away, but desktop video still did not replace the phone. Every five years or so a new crop of companies would emerge who rediscovered the category. Some were modest successes, such as Userplane, who sold themselves to AOL when they were still tiny, and web-conferencing products such as Adobe Breeze (now called Acrobat Connect Pro), WebEx, and my own Convoq ASAP included live video, but not as the primary feature.
Now a new crop of companies are entering the video calling space: Sightspeed, ooVoo, Tokbox, and Skype. Sightspeed and ooVoo have the highest quality video and most features, such as multi-party video calls. In particular, ooVoo has developed patent-pending technology to synchronize the audio and video, an issue that is especially vexing on the less-than-perfect Internet connections available to many consumers. Tokbox uses Adobe Flash and thus requires no software to be installed, but is constrained by Flash's limitation of only using TCP which is ill-suited to video. (This situation will improve somewhat when Flash 10 supports UDP and peer-to-peer connections). Skype has the advantage of a huge base of users who adopted the product as a way to make cheap phone calls but is the most cumbersome to install and use.
So will any of these companies finally move video calling from a niche product to the mainstream? The processor speed and bandwidth today have certainly made quality video available to the masses, but there is still the "coolness factor" to be dealt with. This final ingredient may be social networking. Indeed, Seesmic has made video messaging cool through deft use of social software. They do not currently support real-time, interactive video, but it would be a logical extension of their paradigm. In the meantime, the other vendors are opening up their systems with skins and APIs and making it easy to embed their products in a web page. There is still a lot of experimentation to be done, and the winner may be the company that is not only the most creative but also the most willing to experiment and the quickest to incorporate what they learn.