seeing future of video communication and video calls

3G mobile video calls seem to be a flop. What’s the problem?

One view is that 3G video calls are useless except in a small number of circumstances. Luca Filigheddu reports:

I quote what Mauro Sentinelli (former General Manager of Tim and “deputy chairman” at GSM Association) told me a few months ago: the target users for the mobile video call services are grandfathers who want to see their grandsons and married (or not) couples who live far away. This is because it’s one of the services that you don’t really need since it doesn’t really solve a particular need.

Perhaps the problem is poor understanding of critical user needs:

I just need to get the information I’m looking for, nothing more. Yes, the experience of seeing a pretty girl on the other side is nice, but useless.

Useless?!!! Leaf through the pages of popular magazines. Look at the advertisements. Can there be any doubt that a large share of human beings like to see pretty girls and, to a lesser extent, pretty boys?

You might figure that the ultimate evolutionary reason for the demand for images of attractive persons is just a corollary of the demand for porn. Right, and the ultimate evolutionary cause for all human behavior is just a corollary of the demand for porn.

Taking seriously the value of presence in communication provides more insight. A common topic of gossip is how people look. Hot or Not has been a huge success. This is not just about vulgarity, cruelty, and tastelessness. Images of attractive persons more readily attract attention than images of unattractive persons. The value of these images arises in part from sense of presence of someone understood to be a person like oneself. That’s not the same as the value of porn.

What about problems of privacy, user shyness, and lack of suitable opportunities for use of mobile video? A huge number of videos on youtube suggest to me that these issues are greatly overblown.

The gap between the potential and realized value of mobile video seems to me to be an effect of legacy concepts of a phone and well-ingrained behavioral routines of phone calls. Traditional phones physically bridge the ear to the mouth. Persons are used to the idea of holding a device up to the side of their face and listening and speaking through it. To be successful, mobile video calling, or picture-sharing in-stream of a mobile audio call, requires a much different device form and physical routine of use.

A simple muscular model for audio-visual communication is pointing and speaking. With respect to visual communication, changing forms of digital cameras are starting to teach persons relevant gestures. Unlike film cameras, digital cameras have zero marginal cost per image. They also can be made in small, convenient shapes for one-handed use. So rather than holding a camera up in front of your face, hoping for a good shot, point-and-shoot can be a casual hand gesture. The shape of most digital cameras suggests considerable conceptual and behavioral inertia. The most important implication of “camera phones” may be to help to change the concept of camera shape and the gesture of camera use.

Audio communication also shows seeds of more propitious device forms for audio-visual communication. Washington, D.C. now requires drivers to use handless mobile phone headsets. I regularly see persons walking down the street, apparently just talking to themselves. Actually, they’ve got a small headset around one ear, and another part in their hand or pocket. They’re talking on a mobile phone. Getting them to capture and view images with a device in hand still represents a significant design challenge. But mobile headsets are probably helping to open up practical device design possibilities.

Perhaps mobile video calling has flopped because the design of the devices has made them unlikely to be used. These devices do not seem to have provided a “see what I see” experience. As far as I can tell, devices that support mobile video calling are designed to be used like desk-top video conferencing systems. In desk-top video conferencing, the environment is typically irrelevant and rather boring, and the camera is focused just on the user’s face. Mobility allows users to move into novel, interesting, communication-relevant circumstances. Mobile video communication should exploit this central aspect of mobility.

Companies developing mobile video communication need to work closely with communication experts. Smart researchers at IBM Research have garnered some insights on new communication services by studying their colleagues’ use of experimental services. But the learned in this field must confront the painful truth: the foremost communication experts are 16-year-old girls.

Forget about grandfathers and married couples. Any new communication service needs to succeed with girls.  YouTube’s founders understood this truth. Early on, they desperately sought to attract girls to their service. Attracting girls isn’t easy. Great guy humor isn’t good enough. While I cannot offer a lot of empirical support, I strongly believe that succeeding with girls is possible. In any case, that is the fundamental challenge for new communication service providers.

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