Video telephony is undoubtedly the next big thing in communications. It just makes sense that electronic communication should include the visual element. Of course this assumes the technology is affordable, has good quality and the purpose of the communication is friendly. Today, video telephony is both good and affordable for home and business use. The friendly qualifier is added because one of the alluring aspects of some forms of digital communication is anonymity. There can be comfort in “being heard and not seen.”
Much is being written about the benefits of video calling, most of which is insightful and right on the money.
A More Robust Form of Communication
With audio calling, we have words, volume, pace, rhythm and voice inflections to facilitate understanding. We’ve done well with this for over a century. Now, with video calling, we can recover elements of communication that have been missing with telecommunications: facial expressions, gestures, body language, visual aids and visual ambiance. It only makes sense that the communication experience will be richer with a more complete spectrum of sensory inputs.
“Good communication is as stimulating as black coffee and just as hard to sleep after.” — Anne Morrow Lindbergh, ‘Gift From the Sea’
Increased and Improved Collaboration
With the visual element, there is the potential for stronger connection with clients as well as improved access to, by and between remote workers. For example, the ability to literally point to a problem in an ad hoc fashion will optimize some types of field support. When tech support says, “I think I see the problem” it will no longer be a figure of speech.
Unified Communications (UC)
The whole point of the UC trend is the integration of communication devices and methods, data and media. If a form of communication can be digitized, it is or soon will be part of unified communication. By definition, video calling is part of UC.
“True interactivity is not about clicking on icons or downloading files, it’s about encouraging communication.” — Edwin Schlossberg, 2002
Reduction of Travel Expenses
This one I disagree with. I think it’s a mistake to justify video calling on the basis of reduced travel costs. Most travel connected with a business requirement, an executive perk, personal recreation or a family emergency will not be replaced with video telephony. What’s left to cut out?
Predicting video calling as a replacement for most audio-only telephony makes sense. The same cannot be said about how it will affect travel expenditures. The failed prophecies regarding email as a way to reduce paper consumption offer insight about the future impact of video on travel. Most people have experienced the benefits of email – a “paperless office” is not one of them.
“The use of e-mail in an organization causes an average 40 percent increase in paper consumption.” — Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper, http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=8501
I can imagine a scenario that could actually lead to greater travel. It begins with short-term reductions in travel, which reduces demand and drives down travel costs. Simultaneously, the emotional impact of “people seeing people” via video telephony begins to awaken desire for more intimate social contact, which has been suppressed during the so-called “cocooning” of the last 15-20 years. Since video calling cannot replace the assurance of a handshake, the warmth of a hug, the tingle of a kiss, a friendly jab in the ribs, the smell of cologne, or just the comfort and intimacy of being together, this technology could eventually increase the desire to travel. Of course, there is always the rare exception:
“I’ll probably never have children because I don’t believe in touching people for any reason.” — Paula Poundstone
At its heart, the purpose of travel is more emotional than anything else. Some things just can’t be digitized.
“People are willing to trade money for something that they can touch, not ones and zereos.” — John Gruber, How to Blog for Money by Learning from Comics, SXSW 2006
People will always be willing to pay the costs of getting from point “A” to point “B” and back again to point “A” so that they can enjoy the in-between part. Teleportation, something relegated to the realm of science fiction, is a theoretical replacement for travel. Video calling is not.
“Electronic communication is an instantaneous and illusory contact that creates a sense of intimacy without the emotional investment that leads to close friendships.” — Clifford Stoll, Silicon Snake Oil, 1995
So, even when video calling eventually ranks ahead of today’s non-visual alternatives, this virtual experience will always be an inferior substitute for being in the physical presence of another person. Even with video, I believe calls will still conclude with, “We need to get together sometime.”
© Copyright September 2008, Clancy Cross. All rights reserved.
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