Monday, June 24, 2024

Why Your ‘Video Phone’ Is Better Than George Jetsons’

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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.

Facebook has a SnapChat clone called Poke, which hasn’t really taken off.

Vine is also growing fast as a medium of video communication. The videos are super easy to create using multiple scenes (when your thumb is on the screen, it’s recording, when you lift your thumb off, it pauses). Vine’s 7-second limit and asynchronous sharing makes it more appealing. The fact that it automatically creates a looping video enables people to really focus on a short moment of communication.

Instagram recently rolled out an asynchronous video feature for creating and sharing up to 15-second videos that do not loop. Like Instagram photos, the videos can get filters, which help with the boring background problem. You can also edit videos, removing segments of the video that you’d rather not share. These features are also designed in part to help people with their reluctance to communicate by video.

Here Comes the Future

The use of video as a communications medium has an amazing future, and here’s why.

First, it’s only a matter of time before people discover what’s really possible. Let me give you one example.

A plane crash here in Silicon Valley Saturday involving an Asiana Airlines 777 losing its tail during an aborted landing re-ignited the debate about the role of social media “reporting” vs. professional reporting. For a half-hour after the crash, the world was clamoring for any tweets, pictures or videos they could get.

It turns out that Samsung honcho David Eun was on the flight. Eun is in charge of Samsung’s brand-new Open Innovation Center, which is located in Silicon Valley and New York City.

After evacuating, Eun turned around and snapped the most famous picture of the event — a shot of the plane taken at fairly close range showing fellow passengers evacuating.

At the time of his post, there was no live video feed of the event, and in fact most news media hadn’t started covering it yet.

What’s interesting is that thanks to the video communications revolution in general, and Google+ Hangouts On Air in particular, Eun carried with him the ability to live-broadcast video from the scene, by-passing and superseding the news media.

By calling someone at a desktop computer and asking them to invite him to a Hangout On Air, Eun could have live-streamed video from the scene on his Android phone, which surely would have gone crazy viral, gaining far more live viewers than CNN and all the TV networks combined in a few minutes. He would have had literally millions of people watching live video from his phone, as live Hangouts On Air video can be shared directly on Google+.

But nobody at the crash thought to do this — not the people in the terminal posting non-live YouTube videos, not traumatized passengers, not emergency crews or passengers on other planes. Yet most of them had this ability. They just didn’t think of it.

Any day now, a massive news event will be streamed live via Hangouts On Air by a random person on the scene, and that ability to route around the news networks will be publicized and established.

For ordinary communication, video is the future. A report released last year by the Pew Internet & American Life Project said 40 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 use video-chat applications. In other words, more than a third of young people are growing up and already establishing the video communication habit.

We’re also on the cusp of a revolution for wearable computing. Products like Google Glass and a universe of smartwatches eventually capable of video calls will drive the video communication habit.

Within the enterprise, video communication is on the rise. The most exciting area of innovation in the realm of telepresence robots I told you about recently that enable remote users to inhabit the body of a semi-autonomous robot, attending meetings and touring factory floors from the other side of the world.

The present and future of video communication is actually pretty awesome. Direct video calls are ubiquitous, easy and nearly free. And a world of asynchronous, self-deleting or time-limited options exists to get people past their reluctance to be on camera in a live video call.

George Jetson never had it so good.

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