Videoconferencing's never-ending entrance

What is holding videconferencing back?

While the U.S. feds and carriers are taking turns taking the heat for warrantless wiretapping (and a pox on both their houses, say I), I'm beginning to wonder why we ordinary Joes and Janes don't spend more time watching each other. Or more accurately, wondering when we're going to start.

I'm not talking about snooping through e-mail, or wiretapping each other's phones (who would want to, anyway?). I'm talking about literally staying in each others' faces. Videoconferencing's been "the next big thing" since, oh, approximately 1988 -- yet it's never really taken off in a major way, at least for consumers.

Yes, most large enterprises maintain room-to-room systems (or rollabouts). And video over IP seems to be catching on, as well: About 40% of the enterprise folks I speak with say they're planning a video-over-IP deployment in the next 12 months, while a handful say they've got it today. Finally, all the buzz about "telepresence" is starting to gain real traction -- companies that have rolled it out say they're seeing serious improvements in business productivity.

But in the consumer universe, the only folks I know of who videoconference as a matter of course all work in the tech industry -- and they use it to stay in touch with their families from the road. So I have to wonder: Why don't more people do peer-to-peer videoconferencing (or if you prefer, consumer telepresence)? It's clearly do-able, relatively affordable, and seems to provide real benefits to the folks who use it (all of whom tell me they love it). So why aren't the rest of us all over it?

One good reason is that product marketing might not have caught up with technology. The people who design consumer electronics haven't yet made conferencing systems as sexy, easy to use and hip as, say, an iPod. For mainstream acceptance, you'd need a self-contained system that didn't require a PC (but could integrate with one, as well as plug into your phone for on-the-go usage). Oh, and it would have to come in a range of pretty colors -- or at least white, black and silver.

Another possible reason is that we haven't yet figured out how to work interactive video into our day-to-day lives. Today, at any rate, videoconferencing is just phone calls on steroids. But are there other ways to integrate video into our lives?

MIT Media Lab researchers have already developed devices that allow users to set up a variety of "always on" video connections between friends and family members. They can be carried as low-definition keychain-sized trinkets (with wireless access to the 'Net), or displayed on wall-mounted high-definition displays. In fact, you could even imagine resorts in exotic locales putting high-definition cameras up and providing folks with 24/7 video "feeds" of, say, a real-world tropical beach scene. So maybe the real reason is that we haven't figured out how to use video yet.

Or maybe we just don't want to get into each others' faces. What do you think?

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Johna Till Johnson

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