Thursday, February 02, 2006

Anticipating the Videophone

Just how intrusive will a video-call be?

by Carla Diana

NEW YORK, July 8, 1998 -- When the telephone [Image]
first came onto the consumer scene, people
gradually made room in their lives for the new addition.
Space was cleared on tables and walls, and socially
accepted protocol for having a conversation, i.e. "phone
etiquette," developed.

How will videophones sneak into our lives if they turn
into full-fledged, acceptable-quality consumer products?

Clearly, the video-call creates a much more intimate
situation than an ordinary telephone conversation
(imagine those edgy post-first-date "still getting to
know you" chats if both parties could be seen as well as
heard). The videophone could change the way we live, what
we leave sitting on our coffeetables, even what we wear.
If we know that we should be prepared to be eyed at any
moment when a call comes in, we won't be so comfortable
lounging around in our undies. Whereas videophones may
first find themselves where PCs or TVs are, they beg to
be placed in the room where one would typically entertain
guests. We may even rearrange our space around the
videophone to be conscious of which objects callers are
seeing, which views of the room are most flattering, and
which locations are less likely to have traffic running
in front of the camera.

What will the ideal interface look like? We're tempted to
think of it as a telephone, but there's a completely
different interaction involved. If anything, it's more
like having a friend drop by and hang out for a while,
except that he's hanging out in one fixed location in
your home, and in two dimensions, of course. While the
social dynamic of saying "Hey, how're ya doing?" is as
ancient as can be, the equipment that enables it -- and
how intrusive this equipment is -- remains to be seen.
What kind of buttons will we press? How will we signal
that the conversation is over -- a wave goodbye, or a
digitally inspired variation on the handshake? How will
we screen calls? [Perhaps Caller ID goes from luxury to
necessity. -- Ed.]

A design colleague of mine had an interesting solution.
His videophone was essentially a door in front of a
screen. Look through a virtual peephole and you can find
out who's there before opening the door and accepting the
call. The geometry of a life-sized, full-length screen as
opposed to the horizontal configuration of a TV or
monitor lets you see the entire person, rather than just
a talking head. The real beauty in this concept for me is
the way it deals with the psychologically uncomfortable
aspect of having someone viewing you in your private
space. The physical barrier of the door that requires
being opened before you can be seen provides a measure of
comfort and familiarity that may be overlooked in many
possible videophone configurations.

Once we get over the new sensation of having virtual
guests in our homes, I hope that videophones will provide
some successful approximation of eye contact. Right now,
many makeshift videophones involve positioning a camera
somewhere on the periphery of the viewing screen.
Ideally, the camera will be positioned behind a clear
screen (allowing the camera to alternate between a frame
grab and a screen "refresh" at an imperceptible rate).
Otherwise, I fear that too much time spent having weird
"I'm talking to you but looking over there" conversations
will have a negative impact on people's ability to
interact with one another in the real world.

Logistical challenges aside, the potential of videophones
to enhance our social lives is a provocative one, letting
us "reach out and touch" others in a fantastic, albeit
sometimes intrusive, new way.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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