Camera Not Obscura

by Brian Boyko, Contributing Writer

For most of human history, text was the only reliable way to communicate long distances. The Romans used wax tablets sent via a messenger up the Appian Way; even the Telegraph is primarily a text-based medium; and telephones – transmitting audio information as remote communication – didn’t really “catch on” until the 20th century.

What makes telecommunications particularly interesting in 2010 is that, while a lot of the key technologies of video conferencing have existed for years, only recently have these technologies been coming together in combinations that directly increase the utility of all teleconferencing systems, and available to the average person.

Swedish Prime Minister Tage Erlander uses an Ericsson videophone to speak with Lennart Hyland, c.1967

As a society, we’re still very much text and audio focused: I type my proposal as a document, e-mail it to the client, and then he calls me back on the phone.  Yet, for years, we’ve had mobile data, high definition cameras, high-powered portable computers, and the telecommunication protocols and codecs required to create a society that communicates remotely via video.  Now that they are being combined – cellphones with HD cameras and video screens, software that can transmit high fidelity images and a broadband network to hold it all together – video conferencing is now becoming feasible as a primary telecommunication medium.

Call me crazy (you wouldn’t be the first), but I think we’re starting to get to the point where video conferencing is becoming as natural as making a phone call.  Certainly, it’s not mainstream yet; for one, we’ve established a massive network based on phone numbers and sending audio communications.  But more and more, that data is becoming digitized – cable and telephone companies that send data as either TV channels or Internet broadband also offer telephone services.  And once you can send digital data in one form (audio), you can send digital data in any form (text, video, applications…).  It’s just a matter of making sure the infrastructure at the endpoints is set up for the type of data, and making sure you have enough bandwidth to support the demand.

There’s also a societal shift – as a society, we’re becoming more comfortable with the idea of being on video.  Part of it is coming from consumer video chat, business use of video communications and teleconferencing, and the associated media coverage of the technologies.  But other factors exist as well; we did not have YouTube a decade ago, and now it’s not unusual for people to have their video likeness accessible to people literally around the world.  As a society, we are overcoming our video “stage-fright,” if you will.

One of the big shifts over the past few years is towards mobile communication devices.  You’ll be hard-pressed to find a person under 35 years old who still has a dedicated land line in their homes; mobile phones cost the same amount at similar quality.  And many if not most mobile phones sold today have both cameras and video screens. The iPhone 4 has two – including one camera pointed towards the user, specifically in order to take advantage of video communications.

Another big shift is the rise in VoIP. Those of my friends who do not own mobile phones do so because they solely use services such as Skype that already work with the cameras built into their laptops, and connect over Wi-Fi signals. If you don’t have to make a lot of phone calls, or spend most of your time at your computer, it’s a viable option.  Skype, of course, has had video calling for a while now, though the quality is more for casual than business use.

Of course, there are many new players in both the consumer internet and unified communications/telephony spaces that are moving into video conferencing, and gaps in standards have emerged as each company re-invents the wheel.  However, as soon as we get all the protocols and standards worked out, and people get more comfortable communicating via video, we may be looking (heh, literally) at a new way for our society to communicate that will become as pervasive as the telephone. This is what LifeSize has been driving since day one.

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