Video Chat's Time Is Coming


Greater comfort with video, better hardware much improved networks, breathe new life into an old idea.

Video calling, video chat, and video conferencing are ideas that have been around for years, in some cases, for decades, without ever gaining much mainstream traction. Now the idea seems to finally be catching on, spurred by a combination of better technology and, perhaps as important, a much higher level of comfort with video.

Not that long ago, appearing "on television" was an extraordinary event for most people. But in an age of YouTube and Facebook, when most of us carry a device capable of recording video—mobile phone, digital camera, or Flip—nearly all the time, video has lost its mystery. As a result, we are much more at ease with the idea of appearing on the screen.

At the same time, improving networks have made real-time streaming video practical.  The Picturephone that AT&T introduced at the New York World's Fair in 1964 used voice telephone lines and transmitted a black-and-white frame every two seconds (15 frames per second is now considered the bare minimum for quality video). Today a typical home broadband connection can easily handle full-screen standard definition video and a good one can do high-def,. In addition, nearly all laptops also feature built-in cameras. And there are conferencing rigs designed to work with a high-definition TV display,.

Mobile devices, however, are still a challenge because of the challenges of moving quality video over wireless networks.  3G wireless networks are generally designed on the assumption the people may want to download large quantities of data at high speeds to mobile devices, but are unlikely to upload much. This assumption works fine for watching a Netflix movie, but falls apart when you are streaming video in both directions.

Despite network limitations, Apple pushed the use of video chat toward ubiquity by adding a front-facing camera, that is, one on the same side of the phone as the display, to the iPhone 4 and accompanying it with an easy-to-use app called FaceTime. The iPad 2 added a similar camera and this equipment. But FaceTime can only be used on a Wi-Fi connection. Some other applications, such as Fring, allow video calling and chat over 3G on Android and Nokia smartphones and iPhones, but no one will mistake the results for high-def. (You can view a video demo here.)

New 4G networks should improve the situation. Verizon Wireless has promised to bring a video version of Skype to its smartphones running on its LTE network by the middle of the year. Tango, available for iPhone/iPad and Android makes video calls over either 3G or Wi-Fi, though 3G tends to be choppy and pixelated.

The sheer number of video calling and chat solutions out there actually points to a Tower of Babel problem in video communications: In general, each of these apps only work if both ends of the connection are running the same software. It's a bit as though your Verizon mobile phone were only able to call other Verizon customers, a problem the voice telephone business solved about 125 years ago.

A new app called SocialEyes, available now for Windows, Mac, and Linux and soon for iPhone/iPad and Android, doesn't quite solve this problem but tries to ease it by making it easy to connect with other SocialEyes you are likely to know. You log in to SocialEyes through Facebook Connect and any Facebook friends who have signed up for SocialEyes show up in your  address list. If Facebook Friends join later, they are automatically added. SocialEyes handles both one-to-one and multi-person video chat and also lets you send email-like video messages.

For all the growing pains, it's clear that video calling and chat are becoming increasingly important. Achieving its full benefit is going to require continuing network improvement, especially in wireless. In addition to the build-out of 4G networks over the next couple of years, we are also likely to see the construction of substantial areas of public Wi-Fi coverage, especially in large cities, as wireless carriers seek to move traffic from their increasingly crowded 3G and 4G networks to the more capacious Wi-Fi.

The contents or opinions in this feature are independent and do not necessarily represent the views of Cisco They are offered in an effort to encourage continuing conversations on a broad range of innovative, technology subjects. We welcome your comments and engagement.

Cisco Note: Cisco's ūmi home telepresence system ($399-$499) delivers a full-HD, video calling experience.and software  currently in trials will let PCs and Macs connect to umi set-ups.  More information on Cisco umi here

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About Steve Wildstrom @swildstrom

Steve Wildstrom was a veteran technology journalist who wrote the Technology & You column at BusinessWeek.