Is mobile video-calling a device thing?

Ever since I’ve been involved in the telecoms industry, it seems that people have been proposing video calling as the next big thing that will revolutionize person-to-person calling. Of course, the industry has been proposing it for even longer than that, as this video from 1969 shows.

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One thing not anticipated by that video is mobile communication, and video calling was meant to be one of the leading services of 3G mobiles. When 3G arrived in Australia in 2003, the mobile carrier Three sold its 3G phones as pairs so that you’d immediately have someone you could make a mobile video call to.

Needless to say, the introduction of 3G didn’t herald a new golden age of person-to-person video calling in Australia. So, despite all the interest in making such video calling available, why hasn’t it taken off? I’ve heard a number of theories over the years, such as:

  • The quality (video resolution, frame rate, audio rate, etc.) isn’t high enough. Once it’s sufficiently good to be able to easily read subtle expressions/ sign language gestures, people will take to it.
  • The size of the picture isn’t big enough. When it is large enough to be close to “actual size”, it will feel like communicating with a person and it will succeed.
  • The camera angle is wrong, eg. mobile phones tend to shoot the video up the nose, and PC webcams tend to look down on the head. If cameras could be positioned close enough to eye-level, people would feel like they are talking directly to each other, and video calling would take off.
  • People don’t actually want to be visible in a call, for various etiquette-related reasons such as: it prevents them multi-tasking which would otherwise appear rude, or it obliges them to spend time looking nice beforehand in order to not appear rude.

But despite the low level of use of video calling on mobiles, there is one area where it is apparently booming: Skype. According to stats from Skype back in 2010, at least a third of Skype calls made use of video, rising to half of all calls during peak times.

One explanation could be that Skype is now so well known for its ability to get video calling working between computers that when people want to do a video call, they choose Skype. Hence, it’s not so much that a third of the time, Skype users find an opportunity to video call, but that a third of Skype users only use Skype for video. Still, it’s an impressive stat, and also suggests that super-high quality video may not be a requirement.

Certainly, I’ve used Skype for video calling many times. I’ve noticed the expected problems with quality and camera angle, but it hasn’t put me off using it. I find that it’s great for sharing the changes in children across my family who are spread around the world, and otherwise difficult to see regularly. But a tiny fraction of my person-to-person calls are Skype video calls.

However, I’ve ordered an Apple iPad 2 (still waiting for delivery) and one of the main reasons for buying it was because of the front-facing camera and the support for video calling. I am hoping, despite all of the historical evidence to the contrary, that this time, I am going to have a device that I want to make video calls from.

The iPad 2 seems to be a device that will have acceptable quality (640×480 at 30fps), and it is large enough to be close to actual size, but not so large that the camera (mounted at the edge of the screen) is too far away from eye line. So, they may have found the sweet spot for video calling devices.

If you know me, be prepared to take some video calls. I hope that doesn’t seem rude.

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