Video calls: A face odyssey

The new iPhone is being marketed on its ability to make video calls. Will it finally succeed where its predecessors failed? Rhodri Marsden reports

The way we make phone calls has remained pretty much the same for decades. We might sit at a desk, doodling absent-mindedly, or sprawl on the sofa while gazing in the vague direction of the television. Or, indeed, pace up and down, gesturing wildly and rolling our eyes in fury. But if FaceTime, the new video calling feature that ships with Apple's new iPhone 4, takes off and becomes the standard way we interact remotely, none of the above will be permissible. Telephone conversations will be like performing, our gestures and expressions visible; increased clarity of communication has got to be a good thing, but how keen are we, really, on dismantling another social barrier and allowing technology to bring us closer together? Perhaps too close together?

FaceTime has been beautifully implemented by Apple. You're only a swipe and a prod away from being connected to another iPhone 4 owner via video, while another prod switches from the front camera to the back camera to allow the other person to see what you're looking at. And early adopters seem excited by the prospect. Customers in the USA who were surveyed while standing in the lengthy queues to get hold of the gadget voted overwhelmingly for FaceTime as being its most attractive feature, and the gleeful reaction during the iPhone 4 launch (when deaf people were shown signing via mobile, and a soldier in Afghanistan seen watching his wife have an ultrasound scan) indicated that a brand-new technology might, once again, be about to radically transform the way we interact.

But video calling isn't a new technology. And thus far, our interest in it has been lukewarm to say the least. Its widespread adoption has been a regularly-made prediction since the first demonstration of AT&T's Picturephone back in 1964 at the New York World Fair to visitors' acclaim. When Arthur C Clarke happened to see it in action, he was so enamoured that it became part of 2001: A Space Odyssey, cementing it in our minds as a sci-fi device we may all be using one day.

But cooing over futuristic gadgets is one thing; buying them is another. AT&T pumped millions of dollars into the project, predicting that by 1980 a million people would be using the Picturephone. But at its peak it only had 500 subscribers. There were three main problems: it was expensive, with people paying $125 a month to have one; the picture quality was dubious, and most obviously – with so few devices, who could you call? These issues returned whenever new video calling technology was launched. Even in the 1990s, when video pictures were more easily transmissible via ISDN, the hardware and subscription costs of making calls still put it well out of the reach of the average consumer.

In more recent years, of course, access to the internet has become cheap and plentiful, and we've got more used to the idea of making video calls. Skype and Nokia have included video calling as an option for a few years now. But barely a third of us have made a real-time video call, and the vast majority merely tried it – and came away unimpressed.

"The experience of video calling has been pretty poor thus far," says futurologist and gadget expert Jonathan Mitchener. "You've had to know how to set it up – and as far as mobile devices are concerned, the machines and batteries haven't been up to the task. But with FaceTime, Apple have removed the non-essential stuff and just made it work, without having to open an account and so on. And with something like video calling, which is by no means an essential, it's got to be made simple, and it's got to be free or cheap." Apple has achieved both these things; the former by being one of the few technology companies with total control over the hardware and software elements of their devices, and the second by bypassing the mobile networks and only allowing FaceTime to operate over a wireless broadband connection for the time being.

Traditionally, mobile networks have not been keen on any kind of calls being made from mobiles via Wi-Fi, because time spent communicating via broadband is time they're unable to charge the consumer for. But Apple is forcing the issue, and has stolen a march on Skype and Fring, who beat them to it but simply haven't had the power to make us want to do it. "For FaceTime to catch on," says Mitchener, "you need a critical mass of devices out there. Millions. And Apple will achieve that – especially if other hardware and software companies start using Apple's open standards. Then, if it becomes entrenched and people love using it, that's when the mobile networks will come on board."

Will we develop a love of video calling after all this time? Most people find the experience slightly disconcerting; you wave at each other, you smile, you think to yourself "wow, this is modern", but then it's replaced with an uncertainty about where you should look and how you should behave. Ian Hutchby, the professor of sociology at the University of Leicester, says: "While the videophone replicates face-to-face contact, it's isn't the same as face-to-face contact. Your eye contact is mediated by the technology and that's why many people have a problem with it – it mimics something we're used to doing every day. But it actually isn't that."

There's also the issue of invasiveness; phone calls are invasive by their nature, but according to Hutchby, video calls "are a whole extra level of imposition. Normally telephone calls are 'back stage' so you don't know what each other look like at that moment. But video calling is very much 'front stage', and there are going to be many more occasions where the person being called will wield that power they have not to accept the call." Despite the fact that the recent explosion in popularity of social media means that young people love the idea of being permanently connected to each other, the new social uncertainties thrown up – "Why won't they take my video call? Do I believe that they are where they say they are?" – are something that we'll have to spend the next few years negotiating.

We do tend to shape communications technology to our own requirements, explains Hutchby: "For example, the telephone itself was never intended as a sociable technology. It was just a point of contact for emergencies, or making shopping orders, and we turned it into a social thing. In the same way, we don't know how we'll end up using technology like FaceTime, but we'll be dictating it." Hints as to its possible deployment are already being seen; a company called 3G Doctor is already offering FaceTime consultations with health professionals for £35 a throw, and even if you balk at that, there are more mundane benefits – not least the imminent replacement of the clunky, error-prone and expensive MMS picture message as a quick way of saying "Look where I am right now!"

Technology analyst Alfred Poor was quoted last week as predicting rapid adoption of video calling by 2012, in a communications explosion "not seen since the advent of the text message"; whether it'll be our new-found ability to "detect subtle emotional nuances" that drives the boom, as Poor suggests, is unclear. But FaceTime makes video communication so easy that it's almost odd if we shun it. And as Professor Ian Hutchby says: "Just because we haven't wanted to make or receive video calls so far, doesn't meant that we won't in the future."

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