Of all the predictions a person could make, suggesting that person-to-person video communication has to be the most dangerous. Video phones, in one form or another, have been “just around the corner” for a century. Pick up a science fiction film from the 60s through the present, and audio-only telephone call, or even an in-person meeting, is clearly not in the future depicted. (In fact, many of these video phones are in public phone booths — think 2001 — making the prediction doubly wrong.)
Quietly, though, video is coming to the desktop. Yes, yes, I know; I haven’t been living under a rock. CUSeeMe is more than a decade old now, and Microsoft’s NetMeeting has been around almost as long. Moreover, videoconferencing facilities are near ubiquitous in the business world. We have very cool videoconferencing facilities and classrooms here at the university, and we have used them extensively to, for example, interview faculty candidates. But what I mean is the simple ability to call someone up and chat via video, without problems.
At the end of last week, we had a doctoral defense (for Mukhbir Singh in which the chair of the committee tuned in via his office at his new university, several hundred miles away. It didn’t go as smoothly as it could. Even though Logitech, among others, offers specialized videoconferencing software, and the major instant messaging systems now do as well, these seemed to suffer from lag, at least on my aging office computer. We finally ended up with a combination of NetMeeting for the video and shared apps, and Skype for the audio. The combination of these two tools worked well, once we figured it out, and the defense was surprisingly successful. The sense of presence through video remains fairly high, and the non-verbal cues were very helpful.
The same week, I found out definitively that I was off the agenda for the Social Software in the Academy workshop this coming weekend in LA. I had planned to attend, but it interfered with graduation ceremonies here at UB. I now wish I had found a way to extricate myself from graduation, but at the time, I thought that I was vital to the MI graduation process and that I might be hooding some folks. No problem, I can participate remotely, I thought. Unfortunately, the organizers didn’t like that idea at all. I have a feeling enough people have had enough bad luck with online video, that it has built up its own obstacles to overcome.