New York Times: Adapting to the Reality of Everyday Video Chatting

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Adapting to the Reality of Everyday Video Chatting

J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times

Kelly Bush, center left, owner of ID Public Relations in Los Angeles, leading a video conference meeting with office staff in New York.

Published: May 20, 2011

WHEN I was young, people marveled at the idea of making a phone call and actually seeing the person you were talking to.

But like individual jet packs, it seemed a futuristic concept that was always just around the corner, but would never actually arrive.

Well, the future may be now. Videoconferencing, Skype and similar technology are not new, but neither have they been widely used by the average consumer or business. That’s changing, though.

“I think we’ve hit a critical mass,” said Rick Osterloh, head of Skype’s consumer product management. This month, Microsoft announced that it planned to buy Skype, the leader in Internet and voice communication, for a staggering $8.5 billion.

So why is the technology taking off now? What exactly are the options out there?

And, perhaps more important, what impact will this have besides requiring more people who work at home to change out of their pajamas?

First, a primer on what we’re talking about. There are all sorts of choices out there for those who want to talk face-to-face without being in the same room. Philipp Karcher, a researcher at Forrester Research, helped me sort them out.

First, there are desktop platforms that allow face-to-face video chats and Web conferencing, among them Skype, MSN Messenger, Google and Yahoo Messenger.

Skype is by far the largest, claiming 170 million users. Calls are free unless they involve more than one person or are from a Skype user to a non-Skype user.

Companies like Fring, Tango and Qik (which has been acquired by Skype), also allow video calling between smartphones and from mobile devices to desktops. Apple, through Facetime, offers video calling between Apple devices.

Just to give you an idea of the popularity of such a concept: the first day Skype began offering video calls on iPhones, on Jan. 1, users placed one million video calls from their mobile phones.

Next is the idea of room-based videoconferencing. “A lot of people invested in it over the last 20 years,” Mr. Karcher said. That consists of a camera on a screen allowing groups of people to talk to and see each other. Companies are now replacing or upgrading these systems with high-definition systems.

And the “corporate jet of videoconferencing” is Telepresence, which as much as possible immerses people in a lifelike situation, using multiple cameras and screens and specially designed rooms.

Such technology will probably be slower to catch on, Mr. Karcher said, since the cost is high. Telepresence can cost up to $400,000 a room.

Finally, there is virtual life, which is used most frequently to allow people to virtually attend conventions and conferences. It creates worlds where people — sometimes in the guise of avatars — can “visit” these places and wander around just as they would at a real conference.

The reason we’re finally seeing video calls and conferencing grow so rapidly, Mr. Osterloh said, was “the pervasive adoption of broadband and PCs and really powerful smartphones.”

“Whenever technology is first introduced, you see a strong inertia toward using what you’re comfortable with,” he said. “And, of course, there are times you don’t want to see people face-to-face and times you don’t want to do video calls, but generally we’ve seen a huge demand for more and better.”

And as more and more people are telecommuting and not working in the same office — or state or country — there’s more of a need to find other ways to communicate.

My first reaction is to be wary of yet another tool that stops us from getting together in person.

“The more communications channels to the world in our living room, the less likely we are to leave the living room,” said Thomas Lewis, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and a practicing psychiatrist.

Dr. Lewis has used video chats to treat patients in other locations for quite a while, he said, and finds it better than doing it over the phone. But the disconcerting thing, he said — as others have mentioned — is that the current technology means one is rarely looking eye to eye.

Because the camera on a desktop is at the top of the screen, if you actually look directly at your video partner, it appears that you’re looking down.

“When someone doesn’t look us in the eye, the brain deduces this as someone being less likable, less confident and less honest,” Dr. Lewis said. “This is problematic in trying to create business relationships.”

Even though intellectually we may know this is simply a technological quirk, deep down in our brains it’s hard to overcome feelings of suspicion when someone doesn’t look you straight in the eye, he said.

But this is less likely to be a problem with someone we know and trust, like family members, he said. “When I go on business trips and Skype home to talk to the kids, I find it tremendously rewarding.”

Much of the newer technology has made us more socially distant. Video chats, on the other hand, while not necessarily as satisfying as old-fashioned human contact, do allow people to see each other and read body language.

Nonetheless, we will need to learn new methods of business communication as face-to-face — but not person-to-person — meetings become more common, said Judith Olson, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine.

A business traveler flying to India for a meeting, for instance, would probably learn some basic cultural practices to avoid offending the host, Ms. Olson said. The same is true for an Indian coming to the United States.

“We have a saying, ‘When in Rome, do as Romans,’ ” she said. “But if I’m videocasting, whose Rome am I in? Whose cultural norms do we take on?”

One way to try to ease into a friendlier atmosphere through videoconferencing is to build in time to chit-chat, she said. When people go to live meetings, they tend to engage in small talk before getting down to business, and often find some common ground that makes everyone feel more comfortable — and more likely to trust each other.

That is not done in videoconferencing, and should be, she said.

No one, however, seems to think that in-person meetings are a thing of the past.

One New York investment banker, who asked that I not use his name since he was not an official spokesman for his company, said 90 percent of his clients were located outside the United States and while he was traveling less, he was still spanning the globe for meetings.

“I’m in an industry that necessitates a lot of handshaking, and human capital is our investment,” he said. While videoconferencing and chats help in developing ideas long-distance, “at pitch time it makes sense to fly the senior people over to show we’re involved and interested.”

Paradoxically, the ability to easily talk to people thousands of miles away may have created distance from those who are geographically closer to us.

Rosanna Guadagno, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Alabama, has studied and used video communications for a long time and says she thinks it’s over all a net gain. But, she said, we do lose something.

“Close social ties might not get strengthened as much,” she said. “I talk with people across the world, but I don’t know my neighbors next door.”