I’m writing this as I wait between planes at San Francisco Airport and contemplate just how much closer I’ll be to getting cancer after I’m done with my latest trip. I can still remember when travel was exciting and fun but that was a long time ago, and even though I have almost every perk and travel advantage known to man, I’ve come to really dread getting on a plane. Back in the 1960s—yes, 1960s—not only was flying far more fun, but we thought that by now we wouldn’t be doing as much of it. Instead of traveling on a plane to a meeting we’d more often use some kind of video call. But even though there have been hundreds of thousands of video conferencing systems sold–most laptops, smartphones, and tablets have this capability baked in, Facetime was heavily promoted by Apple, and the market has consumed millions of USB video cameras—we actually get on planes more now than we did back then.
I met with one of the executives over one of the most popular corporate video conferencing systems and his response, when I pointed this out, is that video conferencing systems will never be able to replace most meetings. Personally, I thought that was complete BS but it could be true if no one is even willing to try anymore.
Let’s talk about the big problem with video conferencing and collaboration this week.
Now, it isn’t as if we haven’t analyzed the hell out of all of this. Originally there were a series of assumptions as to why this stuff wasn’t more widely used. The systems were hard to set up, the picture quality sucked, and the latency and audio quality was on the far side of really annoying. But, over time, we fixed the picture quality (up to 4K resolutions now), voice quality can approach studio levels of quality, and latency became nearly non-existent. Still, even though sales did increase for the systems usage remained relatively low and people—for the most part—still preferred planes. So the industry started looking at the cause for this behavior.
Studies indicate that desktop cameras were feared by employees who thought their bosses were secretly using them as spying tools even though there was no evidence that this was being done. Women, in particular, hated those cameras because they wanted to make sure they looked OK before the call and that really isn’t viable if the call is coming in.
In looking at how people interacted both with video conferencing and without it, it was determined that video conferencing, because it was face to face, seemed more adversarial rather than collaborative in use. There were two Microsoft efforts that attempted to partially address this<href=”#ngnb3WSImGql”>. A 360-degree camera solution that it sold to Polycom (where it died) and its most recent offering—Surface Hub—which is mostly targeted at those presenting to a mixed local and remote audience.
It was also determined that side conversations, or the lack thereof, were the issue. People just got left out. There were experiments where a large TV was placed in a door frame in portrait configuration so people could walk up to it in both locations and have a chat, much like they would if they wandered off into the corner. That showed a ton of promise but no one seemed to want to pick it up and productize it. Then there were the telepresence robots, which are in use today to allow the remote worker mobility, and these are even used in schools for children with immune deficiencies, but they often prove more of a distraction for everyone else than a benefit and have sold well below critical mass. But they do address this side conversation issue and folks do buy them.
There have even been efforts to put tables next to monitors so that two people could seem to either have lunch or drinks together which also showed promise but never really got out of the experimental phase.
Some Consumer Success
There were spikes in the consumer market however, parents sending kids off to school would use this technology to successfully ease separation anxiety. However, Apple has stopped promoting Facetime and it seems that folks are drifting back to just using the phone to communicate and the tablets are increasingly being left on shelves. With Logitech no longer pushing USB video cameras the use of these by students away from home appears to have dropped off as well and the growth of video conferencing has largely stalled with one exception.
This exception is live streaming the event you are in close proximity to. Increasingly individuals appear to be using their phones to live stream crimes, or more recently, alleged police brutality, and people doing this have often become famous suggesting this use may be sustainable.
Wrapping Up: So Close
The measure for success for these video systems isn’t sales growth. We’ve had three full cycles of sales growth already and each time we’ve had a period after where business realize these things aren’t used much and stop buying them. The measure is when travel becomes the extreme exception rather than the rule and business travel goes into decline We are close but not with traditional approaches. VR and holography, like Microsoft’s Hololens, promise that we have a path to create a meeting technology that not only could match meeting in person but it could exceed it. Suggesting the eventual driver won’t be saving travel cost, but having far more effective meetings. Because, with technology like this you can alter appearance, do real time translation (and make it transparent), and turn every virtual wall into a white board or video screen. It’s called Holoportation and it works.
We are close, we just need someone with imagination to push us over that edge.