Video Conferencing - not yet

Video Conferencing - not yet there

Or, video phone, or teleconferencing if you like. I am amazed. A neat new camera from Logitech. About the size of a poolball, looks pretty cool. I unpacked, and plugged it into my Windows XP computer, and moments later, with no muss or fuss, there's my smiling face looking back at me from the screen. It even has a built-in microphone. Wow, this stuff really works. It's a lot better than the old days... or so I thought.

Only, that's about as far as I got. I have tried a whole bunch of windows apps that purport to give me painless videoconferencing (services, utilities, AOL IM extensions, and yes, even Microsoft Messenger), and I have had much pain. Other than a single exception (about which I can't talk yet) there's been a hundred and one reasons why it didn't (quite) work. Quite legitimate ones, the most typical one being the NAT "firewall" that guards my network. But there were other ones, some of them that didn't make any sense at all.

I had the opportunity today to speak to some folks from a very large company who are big fans of video conferencing. They are pretty passionate about how for a modern global corporation, in fact, if video conferencing could be made to work well it could have a real business impact (read "save money" not necessarily "make money".) They were testing a product and were enthusiastic about the success they were seeing. When I asked what made that product different, the answers focused on two things: great video quality (high frame rates) and really effective ad-hoc (impulsive) use - in other words there was no need to plan ahead: you could just "pick up the phone and call."

It got me thinking about the contrast between my experience and their expressed need. Is there room for a brain-dead simple video conferencing application which just works? In the same way that my Logitech Camera just worked (at least as far as it went, which was to successfully connect to Windows XP and put a video picture on my screen. Video Conferencing which would have the same immediacy and intemacy as my telephone. No thinking required. Just think it and do it.

What makes this hard? I am sure there's more than this but here's my list:

  1. There are significant technical problems. Dealing with the NAT, dealing with the unknown configuration and capabilities of whoever you are trying to contact, and on and on.
  2. There are bandwidth and QoS issues which go over my head but are real.
  3. There are user interface issues, like overcoming the problem that if I am looking at my screen I am not looking at the camera.
  4. There are useability issues, like achieving the simplicity and intuitiveness of the telephone.

I would approach this problem by assuming the latest technology. Assuming the latest cameras, very fast computers with a lot of memory and disk, the latest operating systems, assuming high bandwidth connections and large screens.

Leave the legacy behind and build on the future! But central to this vision is extreme usability, reliability, and video quality. If it can be done, then of course the next and most important question is: is there a business there?


Posted on June 18, 2003 and filed under Uncategorized.