The World Of Video
Ever since the 1950s, people have sought ways to turn phones into video phones. Who wouldn’t prefer to see the person on the other end of the line? While video chat through Voice-over-IP applications on PCs has finally made this a reality for some people, we haven’t managed to make it happen on our cell phones—and cell phones are what more and more people use to talk to each other
The problem with mobile video phone technology has been that it is scattered across at least a dozen different devices and platforms—each incompatible with the other—so that there is no default method of video chatting. Mobile video chat simply hasn’t caught on—until now. The 4G iPhone, which is expected to feature a front-facing camera, and an operating system filled with lines of code for live mobile video, stands to change the way we communicate. It doesn’t matter that other phones have featured front-facing cameras and video chat software: those phones didn’t have the same potential to reach as many people.
We imagine that social media, business, and even the art of conversation may change once mobile video chat is a part of our lives. Today, we’ve set out to investigate what’s come before, why it hasn’t worked, and why the 4G’s version just might stick.
Problems With Video
Videophones first arrived in the 1960s with this picturephone. People lined up in different cities to pay $16 for three minutes (whoa, AT&T. Price gouging even back then?) for the chance to chat between New York and Pittsburgh. In the 1970s, AT&T began offering the service to homes – for a whopping $90 a month. Understandably, not too many people signed up.
One of the biggest problems with video chatting – as anyone with a Skype account or iChat can attest – is the weirdness of eye contact. When fixed on the screen, your eyes aren’t making direct contact with the other person via the camera lens, leading to a strange disconnect. Some solutions exist, like placing a camera behind a rear-projection screen, but they are clunky and large. A camera embedded in the center of the screen would address this problem, but so far this technology has not made it onto store shelves.
Another problem, according to some critics, is that people may actually prefer low-tech methods of conversing (instant message and text message are good examples) over multimedia ones. When you see someone else, and you know that you’re being watched, concern about appearance can take precedence over the content of your conversation.
Let’s take a look at the mobile video chat products on the market today.
Skype for voice works on the current version of the iPhone through an
Israel-based Fring changed the scene last November when it announced the world’s first free mobile video calls . Sure, there were companies before that charged a fortune for mobile video, but this was free – as long as you had a supported phone (basically, that amounted to the Nokia N-series). For the iPhone, Fring’s app let you see who you were talking to but they couldn’t see you. Fring was the first on the ball because their technology, unlike Skype, has always been based on mobile applications. Fring works on the 3G network as well as Wi-Fi. Users report problems connecting with Fring’s service, but what can you expect from the very first iteration of a new technology? Fring is well-positioned to bring the heat when the new iPhone opens up millions of people to front-facing cameras – assuming Apple continues to allow outsiders to use AT&T’s data network. If Fring is relegated to Wi-Fi, the impact will be lessened – but free video calls will still be cool in front of the computer.
At the Consumer Electronics Show back in January, video-conferencing company ooVoo announced its intentions to start a mobile version of its popular desktop video chat apps. OoVoo can handle up to six lines of video conference calling at once – and can record calls -- making it an easy choice for telecommuters. There are still many unknowns – but what we do know is that OoVoo will use both Wifi and broadband cellular signal to conduct its video conferences on phones, and there will likely be a tiered pricing model. The benefit of OoVoo is mainly to businesses that
Google’s Talk application is easy to use and sometimes annoyingly integrated into other Google products. The app – which lets you make calls or instant message, similar to Skype --also has a video capacity, but it’s only available on computers right now. The mobile version of the app works for talking and messaging on iPhones, Blackberrys and Android phones. In the video-talk future, look for Google to be a major player – but like the other video applications, the usefulness could be confined to Wi-Fi if Apple changes its mind about letting outsiders use the network for video calls. Still, with Google’s backbone and other products, Gtalk may eventually be the best option for café-chatting on video with your friends.
TokBox is one of the few players that offers a web-only solution, meaning there is no app to install—just log in to the site. TokBox has made it’s name by integrating with sites like Facebook and applications like Firefox. Want to chat with a Facebook friend online? Just click the TokBox icon and if they accept, you’re connected. Barring any sort of Flash madness on the site, it should be usable from the new iPhone 4G over 3G or WiFi. Think of it as sort of like chatroullete, but with people you know… that have pants on.
Polycom VVX 1500 D
If you’re looking for a video phone in the old school vein of “all-in-one” desktop systems, Polycom is the current flagship carrier. With the forthcoming implimentation of multi-tasking, the new iPhone will have the ability to run a VoIP phone in the background, bypassing the use of any of your AT&T minutes. Who is to say that Polycom won’t put out software that interoperates with these desktop beauties? The company’s tech is based on the open SIP and H.323 standards, which makes it a likely candidate to work with 3rd party applications. Maybe these will be the new standard desk phones in the 2020s?
The most widely available phones for mobile video calls are Nokia’s N series, plus a couple others, which all use Symbian operating systems. Fring chose this series to support when the company started its free mobile video calls in November of 2009. Nokia touch devices, as well as the N95, N95 8G, N82, E72 and E75 all sport the technology. The quality of front-facing cameras hasn’t come close to the high quality pictures that can be taken with regular camera phones, but the tech is good enough to see what’s going on on the other side of the phone.
HTC Evo 4G
Apple is not the only company continuing to chase after the front-facing camera (video!) market. In fact, Apple is far behind many other phone-makers in the game. A good example is the powerful HTC Evo 4G, which has a 1.3 megapixel front-facing camera to supplement the 8 megapixel rear camera. The phone hasn’t gone on sale yet. While Sprint does not offer a video chat client, the carrier has released the SDK so that developers can create apps. The phone has a code name, Supersonic, and is the first 4G smartphone to launch in the United States using Sprint's WiMax network. Neither it's price nor release date have been announced, but, according to Sprint, it expects to ship the device this summer.
Blackberry also is introducing front-facing cameras into its phones in 2010, according to some experts. Devotees of the RIM system have been waiting for years for two cameras – since Blackberrys are used by Wall Street, lawyers, doctors and the government, an addition of video chatting could shake things up in many of these crucial industries.
Telemedicine is growing, with people getting diagnoses, check-ups or even physical therapy over the phone/web. Video calling for people with hearing problems is becoming easier and easier – and the fact that video interpreters can translate for the deaf via conference calling is remarkable. In addition, video teleconferences make it easy to work cooperatively in one office, even if employees are thousands of miles away. The entertainment and socializing possibilities for front-facing cameras are nearly endless, as well.
Apple iChat for iPhone
Rumors have been flying since those pictures of the the iPhone with front-facing camera appeared on Monday, but one thing is certain: Apple is certainly developing some sort of video application to make use of the functions of the new camera. One analyst says that Apple’s new $1 billion data center is going to be used to develop a new video platform (http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9175894/Apple_s_next_big_thing_Video_analyst_says). And it’s not just video calls – the platform would include video gaming and video social networking as well. Chatroulette while you’re riding the bus? Sounds difficult!
We're Almost Ready
Even though there have been good attempts in the past to bring video into mobile phone calls, two things have gotten in the way: peoples’ desire not to be seen while they talk (OMG, no more pajama conference calls) and the fact that everyone needs to be on the same system in order for video chats to catch on. The first problem has been addressed by the ubiquity of webcams and the evolution of smart phones to include front and back cameras, and the second will likely be addressed by the ubiquity of Apple’s software. So pull up your pants and stop gabbing on the toilet, because the new iPhone may just bring video calls into the mainstream and change the way we talk. Don’t worry, you don’t look too bad from that angle.