Why Your 'Video Phone' Is Better Than George Jetsons'

The rise of Web-based video is changing many aspects of business and personal life.
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In the future, people are supposed to communicate through video, according to The Jetsons, 2001: A Space Odyssey and these AT&T commercials from 1992.

In fact, video-phone future is here, and it’s way better than yesterday’s TV and movies ever imagined.

Instead of just talking on boring, landline video phones, we’ve got hundreds of different options to suit every communication style.

Why Yesterday’s Futurists Got It Wrong

Inflatable furniture, dome-covered cities, jetpacks, nuclear-powered flying cars, food in pill form. Almost all the 20th-Century futurist predictions were wrong and for two simple reasons.

First, futurists tend to assume that once something is possible, it will become ubiquitous.

Second, they assume a single, limited application of new technology would be universal.

Both these assumptions are wrong. What futurists forgot to factor in was human nature. Yes, food in pill form is now possible, for example. But it turns out that people enjoy eating food.

In the Jetson, Odyssey and AT&T visions of the future video phone, there was one universal standard and it was a fixed location appliance -- and the only option for making calls.

In the real future -- a.k.a. our present world -- people have enormous choice, and most of those involve a mobile personal device rather than a landline appliance.

Most of our video phone calls happen via mobile apps and web-based services, such as Microsoft’s Skype and Google+ Hangouts, Apple’s FaceTime and apps like Rabbit, Tango, ooVoo, WeChat, Gruveo and others.

These all fall into the category of video communication that’s realtime, like George Jetson’s video phone. But even with that category, there are huge differences.

For example, Google+ Hangouts lets you do video calls with up to ten people, or combine video calls with regular phone calls into one big group conversation. You can add sound and visual effects, screen sharing, YouTube video watching and other features.

Rabbit lets you also do group video chats, and share pictures, movies and music during those chats. One especially cool feature of Rabbit is that when everyone is sharing a movie or video, all the video feeds of participants remain visible, so everyone can see the reactions of the group in real time.

It’s possible for nearly everybody in the US to use one of these real time video services every time they communicate. But in fact, people tend not to.

The reasons are complicated, and all of them bound up in the irrationalities of human nature.

For starters, there’s habit. It’s just easier to call or email when that’s what you're used to doing.

Another barrier is stage-fright, or something like it. When you do a face-to-face, real-time video call, you have to consider not only your appearance, but the appearance of your background or environment.

Part of the reluctance to do real-time video conversations is a sense of exposure or risk. People might worry about being stuck in a video conversation they can’t get out of, that they won’t think of anything to say.

And that’s where the hottest category of video communication comes in.

In the past year or two, we’ve seen a stunning growth in apps that let you communicate with video, but not in a real-time or live video call.

The leading category of these is SnapChat, which is hugely popular, especially among teens. Still, the service has more than eight million adult users (over 18).

SnapChat lets you send videos, as well as pictures or text, which are deleted (or appear to be deleted) after ten seconds or less. This self-destruct feature, combined with the asynchronous reality of SnapChat (you can make a do-over if you don’t like the first try) takes the “pressure” off of video communication. It also feels more private.

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Tags: social networks, Web, smartphone, video phone

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