Saturday, December 22, 2007

why we still don't like videoconferencing

Videoconferencing is not new. Global business has been using videoconferencing for the last 15 years. And in the last couple of years programs like Skype have made huge strides in increasing quality and ease of use for personal users with their High Quality benchmark introduced this month.

Videoconferencing is mainstream. Today at 3.15pm I saw Skype has 5,153,338 people online at one time. It's been as high as 10 million, which shows how a large number of people are accepting and using this type of technology.

But only about 50% of my friends and family enjoy videoconferencing, and this percentage seems to be typical. The main barriers seem to be reasons they won't readily admit to:

- They can't multitask while having a video call. Most telephone users will do something else while they are talking, like typing or paperwork. I've sometimes done that myself. One member of our family readily admits that she enjoys looking out of the window during a phone conversation. She can't do that with a video call however, and feels obliged to remain looking interested during the talk. While that's not difficult if you like the person (or they are related!) but it's hard work to keep up the pretense if you have to be there.

- They don't want to look like a slob, either personally or their home. Most people want to get spruced up for a video chat. Why? I don’t know, since many will invite people into their messy house and greet them in old clothes. But the 50% will give this reason as an excuse for not wanting to use video. It's a bit like the early days of the automobile, where everybody dressed in their Sunday best to go out motoring. Now we just drive around in a T-shirt and jeans. Dress is a barrier that has to be overcome.

- Videoconferencing is just not real enough. That's because a generation of one-way television viewers find it difficult to accept, subliminally, that the screen will interact and talk back to them. It's a mental expectation that the screen is uni-directional, as if we're not talking to a person but just to a familiar image on TV that is not quite real. A real-world example... our grandchildren can sometimes be slightly rude when they Skype us... even though they wouldn't dream of doing it to our face. There is a removal of reality because subliminally they believe they are talking to a representation rather than a real person.

- There's no eye contact. We're all familiar with the standard webcam view... the person on screen studying our chin - and only occasionally looking up if they are aware of good webcam etiquette. We soon get used to the downward view of their profile. But the difference true eye contact makes is remarkable. Most people can discern an eye contact variance of less than 5° at around 20 feet. That means they will be able to tell when a person is standing 20 feet away and looking past your shoulder. The small deflection is immediately obvious. Wow. The human brain is massively sophisticated in discerning these slight differences. So why do we put up with it?

What's the answer? How can we get people to enjoy videoconferencing? I've got some ideas which I've used, and which I'll expand on later.

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