Why making video calls isn’t more popular

I was at the UK UPA World Usability Day event a while ago where the start-up BuddyBounce.com presented. At the time of writing the site isn’t live but it seems to be some kind of social networking, event based webcam service that seeks to connect strangers. The speaker was very positive about how video calling was about to take-off and it started me thinking about why it hasn’t been more popular.

I’ve been optimistically waiting for the widespread adoption of video calling (I use this term casually to include webcams etc.) for years however it has only been used in some relatively niche scenarios, such as talking to relatives in other countries, despite the necessary technologies having been available for perhaps a decade. This article isn’t about whether video calling is generally a good or bad thing, I think there are many situations where it would positively contribute to communication, but why it isn’t used in these contexts.

I see a range of reasons that can mostly account for its lack of use, outlined below.

Privacy

You may not want someone to see you if you’re not properly dressed/made up/in a tidy house or even to know your location. If someone can see you it might make it harder to be doing something else while talking to them (e.g. surfing the net, reading an email, sorting out washing) which people often find useful to do when on the phone but might prefer that the other person couldn’t see them doing.

There is also the fact that people generally aren’t that keen on seeing themselves on the screen, which video calling software does by default, and let’s be honest, the images produced by most webcams aren’t that flattering.

Eye contact

There is something strange about the psychology of speaking to someone on a video call. In real life if you were to watch two people having a conversation you’d notice that for a significant amount of time there is no eye contact between the individuals. People look at other things or people in the vicinity, they look at parts of a person other than their eyes or they just look into space or at their feet. People make eye contact for a number of reasons during conversation, for example to receive visual feedback that the other person is listening, is understanding or is interested. These purposes of eye contact are gained without the need for constant eye contact, in fact there is a range within which there is an optimum level of eye contact, and above that would be considered staring. Which brings me on to video calling.

I have made many video calls, through Skype, MSN Messenger, Apple’s FaceTime and even with Cisco’s absurdly expensive TelePresence system and I’ve also watched others making video calls. Something I’ve noticed is that that when taking part in a video call there seems to be a tendency to be overly focused on the person in the video call window, usually you can just see their face, or perhaps down to their waist. The reasons for this focus I’m not sure, perhaps it’s the novelty, an expectation to keep your visual attention on the other person. It could be that there is something about this mode of communication which means if the other person is looking away or moving away from the relatively fixed position you have to be in in order to remain in view of the other person it is considered lack of interest. Video calling is probably viewed in some respects as a type of phone call and some of the conventions that apply to that also apply to a video call; phone calls typically are short in duration compared to face-to-face meetings and there is an expectation of relative exclusivity of attention during the call. Phone calls are generally initiated by a single person and by the nature of the technology is directed at a single other person (conference calls or speaker phone calls are niche cases). This opening up of a private connection, that has a definite end point (which real life conversations need not have) with a single other person probably leads to more focused attention being given to them than would be if together in the same room.

There is also the issue with the difference in position of the monitor and the camera which means that it’s not really possible for two people to make actual eye contact, as opposed to merely looking at each other – if you look at the monitor rather than the camera you are looking at the other person but because you’re not looking at the camera they think you are looking in the middle distance or elsewhere. This disconnect caused by both people looking at the monitor rather than the camera probably also contributes to more looking at the other person than one otherwise might and contributes to a feeling of unnaturalness because of the disjointed perspectives.

Cost

This certainly has been a factor historically, at least for mobiles. Video calling has been a premium service i.e. expensive with often uncertain costs (mobile pricing used to be extremely complicated) that even the mobile networks have conceded has affected usage. However, this fails to account for why video calling hasn’t been widely used on PC instant messenger clients such as MSN or Yahoo! where it’s free.

Behaviour change

It’s possible that there is another more mundane factor contributing to the lack of usage of video calls, the fact that it is different to the default of making a voice call. Although the technology has been around for a while there are issues of interoperability, if you have a video phone or instant messenger client with a webcam you need to ask the other person if they also have the necessary equipment and whether they wish to also initiate a video call (which they may not be technically proficient enough to set up). There could be awkwardness about this, because it’s new and not usual, we’re not used to being seen while on the phone,
the other person might think ‘why are they asking?’ – there’s something vaguely voyeuristic or nosey about it. Of course there’s also the hassle factor in figuring out how to use it.

Will Apple’s FaceTime change this?

FaceTime solves some of the problems of previous devices by building it into the system so it seems like more of a default. With the public’s love of everything Apple and their slick marketing of it it could help shift perception of video calling (and there is always the contribution that a new generation makes to push things forward). However, although I think this will lead to more usage of video calling most of the issues outlined above will still be drawbacks to making, or receiving, a video call so I think take up of it will still be slow and it will be many years before its routinely used for calls.