Sometimes it matters what you look like. I'm off to a wedding in Cornwall in a few weeks, and my outfit has been chosen so I neither resemble an escaped convict nor threaten to upstage the bride. Later today I'll go to the supermarket wearing something more socially acceptable than an underpants, dressing gown and flip-flop combo. But what about video calls? Today I've already been urged three times by the world's biggest technology companies to talk to someone face-to-face via the web, but I look dreadful. I mean, more dreadful than usual. I haven't shaved, I'm wearing a T-shirt with the words "Sex Insect" on it, and I'm fat. Can we not speak on the phone instead?
We've shown a long-standing ambivalence towards video calling. The first ever demonstration was back in 1964 at the New York World Fair; American telecoms giant AT&T unveiled its Picturephone to gasps of astonishment, and it was stated – somewhat optimistically – that by 1980 a million people would be using it. But at its peak there were barely 500 subscribers across the whole of America. Subsequent incarnations were also stymied by dubious quality, excessive cost, and being sufficiently unpopular for there to be no friends to call using the thing even if you wanted to.
That's changed, of course. Video calls are now easy to make, crystal clear and cheap; mobile phones, tablets and laptops come with front-mounted cameras and microphones, and we don't even have to strap on a headset that makes us look like the keyboard player in Level 42. Three industry giants are making a particularly concerted effort at the moment to persuade us that it's a great idea; Apple's Facetime, Google+ Hangouts and Facebook's new partnership with Skype position them all at the forefront of video communication. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, at the recent press launch, gushed, "It's awesome" – but will we adopt his enthusiasm? Research conducted last autumn showed that only 4 per cent of American internet users make regular video calls, and my own experience is similar to that of technology writer John Dvorak who noted: "Everyone I know has used it once." While the industry talks of "winds of change" and "a dramatic spike" in usage, many analysts believe widespread adoption is still years away.
Our cold feet could just be down to the vanity I mentioned earlier; I generally make or take calls while fidgeting, or slumped on the sofa with one eye on the TV, or pacing up and down while gesticulating wildly, and it doesn't look good. But the other reason – if you'll forgive the sociological jargon – is that it "just feels a bit weird". While video calling is wonderful for friends and relatives who live far apart, everyday communication feels stilted and awkward; it's mediated by the camera and computer screen, so it mimics rather than replicates face-to-face contact. Should I continue looking at the other person, which feels invasive? Or will looking away come across as rude? Often, for whatever reason, we just don't want to see, or be seen; author Warren Ellis put it best when he said, "Video calling deletes the most culturally adopted aspect of a telephone; its ability to facilitate lying."
We always shape technology to our own requirements. The telephone was never intended as a sociable technology – merely a point of contact for emergencies – and no one could have predicted that the text message would become such a compulsive method of communication. Just because we haven't fallen in love with video calling thus far, doesn't mean we'll hate it for ever. But that tipping point may come agonisingly slowly for companies with a financial stake in its success. It may just be a case of waiting for the current demographic, riddled as it is with self-consciousness, to be replaced by one that's a little more at home in front of the camera.