Nobody talks about it, no big deal in papers or magazines – or on the net. Now that video calls (using Skype, iChat or whatever) have become technically and practically possible, they have also become completely uninteresting as a topic. Still, I am convinced, there is a revolution going on when cheap real-time remote interaction becomes part of daily routines for people of the on-line world. My speculations are based upon personal experience, but will this subtle revolution in its third phase be taken to the streets?
Well, I am no too surprised by this lack of interest. My experience is that vanguard technologies always get most of the attention. The dynamics of millions of people taking new technologies into use is rarely discussed and poorly understood. Like in the case of mobile telephony, however, the industry is often taken by surprise by the actual use of their products. Video calls or conferencing got a lot of attention ten or fifteen years ago when the technologies were new, but the performance of the networks far from sufficient. Now, when a lot of people (we are still talking about the wired world) have access to broadband internet, these technologies for the first time become really useful.
With my son and his wife in far-off places like France, Canada and Germany, I have had all possibilities to experience the development of video interaction during the last few years. My experiences range from situations where one has to choose between lousy image and staccato sound when chatting to quite excellent image-and-sound conversations.
In its first phase, video interaction is a function of powerful desktop computers with a separate web-cam and fixed internet. It is a development from the life on the screen related to written chatting. However, where the traditional phone call involves the ambience of the sound-scape, the video conversation adds visual views which to some part reveal the settings of the people involved. Normally, there is one person in front of each screen and web-cam, but not necessarily so: Sometimes more people want to be part of what is going on and try to push in. In spite of some limitations, video interaction phase one works quite well. One sees the person, his or her mimic, new haircut, shirt, make-up, glasses etc – and the wall behind. It is quite fantastic to have such conversations with people you have not met AFS (away from screen) for a long time.
Actually, the fixity of the desktop situation is a limitation one really discovers when wireless networks and laptop computers with built-in cameras become involved. Now mobility in a more concrete sense of the word is introduced! Laptops are carried around in a setting while remaining on-line. They are handed over from one person to another and moved from room to room – and used to show the new flat or for absent friends to be part of the party. Video interaction phase two is obviously quite different from phase one. In a treacherous way, it transgresses the simple spatial order of the first phase.
Places and mobilities, OK, but what has this to do with phones? That remains to be seen. The technology is already here (or at least on its way) with phones that have an extra camera for video talks, wireless internet in many public places and for some selected urban areas 4G telephony. Question 1: Is video interaction phase three interesting at all for people who already can make phone calls, send SMS messages, update their status on Facebook or Twitter and use all the opportunities of the internet? Question 2: Will the visual component of video interaction be seen as an intrusion upon the (more or less) expected anonymity of urban public space? Question 3: What will the consequences for public space be if mobile video interaction becomes as common as calling and texting?
So, how will the subtle revolution continue in the streets?
 “People have been dreaming about video calling for decades. iPhone 4 makes it a reality”, Apple says. The new iPhone is not the first phone to have a web-cam, but perhaps it will prove to afford the adequate technology for video interaction phase three.