Editorial: Why don't we like video calls?

The title of this article came to me while I was browsing Wikipedia, a situation which I hope somebody can relate to where an article on a certain topic brings you eventually to something totally unrelated, with no relevance whatsoever to the original piece but still fascinating nonetheless. The need to click through endlessly to find out worthless facts is fascinating in itself, but ironically I've digressed.

Where did it all go wrong for the pioneers of this fine technology? It's not like we never wanted it; indeed, many designs of the house-of-the-future famously incorporated some sort of video phone somewhere along the way, and advances in technology made video calling inevitable. If this was such a bad idea, why didn't somebody turn around and say "Hold on, this is stupid, people don't want this"?

The effort to upgrade mobile phone networks to the third-generation, spearheaded by Hutchison 3G (known to most as 3), seemed to have been motivated by video calls. The message was clear: People want this and it is going to be huge. As most of you are aware, 3G technology is alive and well, employed by millions, yet the driving force behind the upgrade seems to have faded away. Service providers rarely (if ever) provide video calling minutes as part of their contracts, and supposedly "cutting edge" phones such as the iPhone make no reference to this feature whatsoever. Clearly, demand has faded. At least, it has in this area of technology.

While mobile video calling seems to be gasping for its last breath, Voice over IP services such as Skype have shown little sign of a lack of interest in video calls. In fact, hardcore Skype users created a plugin for webcam support before the official developers had implemented this for themselves. Pidgin users rant on forums about a lack of webcam support, and one of Microsoft's Mac Messenger's biggest criticisms is its lack of webcam support. A lack of daylight and social interaction could well be the source of all this pent-up rage around these programs' shortcomings, but the answer is most likely that consumers do care about video calling. Something doesn't add up here.

I'm sure the more easily frustrated among you are screaming at your monitors about how I've neglected the point about how not everybody owns a video phone, or that VoIP is free and mobile video calls are not. The first point is easy to rebut: Text messaging was in a similar position once upon a time, and nowadays you'd be seen as a "n00b" if "u cdnt ndrstnd ths". The second point is more interesting. Talking to people through a home phone is cheaper than on a mobile call, in most cases, and actually seeing the person and speaking face-to-face is 100% gratis. Also, the advantage of carrying around a sleek compact video-enabled mobile phone heavily outweighs the free aspect of carrying around a chunky laptop, a 3G dongle, and some hope that the person you want to speak to is online. This isn't to say that VoIP's significance should be ignored as an inconvenient gimmick, but the fact that VoIP is free does seem to come closer to the issue.

As part of an incentive to get people video calling, in its early days providers would offer a handful of free video calling minutes. Trouble was actually knowing someone who had a video phone as well that you could call. But the other thing was that there's not much more information you can get from a video call than you can from a standard call. Facial expressions are almost lost in the grainy low-resolutions images on the screen (unless your caller is fantastically expressive), emotions can be detected in voice anyway (here's a tip: watching people cry is not fun), the caller may not be looking their best (not as big of an issue in a voice call), and also (and possibly most importantly) it's hard to do anything else at the same time.

Sad but true, it looks like our hectic lifestyles are the reason we don't want to embrace video calling, and all the speeches made by eccentric men on how we will eventually communicate via hologram may well stay dreams, all because we don't care much.

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