Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Mass Roll-Out of Video-Phones is Here

A fifties Popular Science article on current inventions describes the 'New Video Phone' a two-way camera in a specially made telephone booth for both military and social purposes. (1950: 81) Despite the technology's history, widespread video-phone use continues to elude us. A sci-fi staple (Bladerunner, Aliens), video-phones (like jet-packs) are an endearing trope of the future.

But wider adoption of video-phones has been marred by costs. As such the technology has been dwarfed by the continuing widespread use of mobile telephones, with little impact on commuting practices; it's just not face-to-face communication. As a 1973 report to the US National Science Foundation titled 'Telecommunications Research in the United States and Selected Foreign Countries: A Preliminary Survey' made clear: "The Principal impetus for this work seems to be a feeling that substitution of telecommunications for travel can be more readily effected by less expensive audio and visual conferencing arrangements than by person-to-person video-phone". (1973: 27)

Now a new idea that Apple and other mobile companies are championing might see video phones replace audio after all. The idea is video communication via wireless networks and Apple are presenting it through there Face Time software and the latest version of their iPod music player, the iTouch, as well as the iPad 2 and iPhone 4. This means that anyone with a front-and-back camera-enabled device and a wireless network can make video calls: a potentially much larger audience that mainstream iPhone users relying on 3G networks. Competitors are also jumping on board with new portables like the Samsung Galaxy tablet. PC Mag 17 September 2010

The possibility of bypassing telco providers to reduce costs for video is the major innovation here. But more simply, the other innovation is front-facing cameras now standard on most laptops. Video-phones might also discourage mobile phone usage as wireless networks become more widespread. As we all get more used to Skype and Google Chat, as well as unconventional technologies like vid-mail (i.e. Eyejot) where video recordings are sent instead of text, video-phone use might finally become widespread and even substitute for travel. The work contexts are particularly interesting as front-and-back cameras combined with wireless video becomes standard for business and corporate phones. When the costs are borne by organizations then most work users might be expected to use video over audio and perhaps even vid-mail over email?

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