December 5, 2020

Shortcuts: Face-to-Face Calls Are No Longer Futuristic

WHEN I was young, people marveled at the idea that you could make a phone call and actually see the person you were talking to.

But like individual jet packs, it seemed a futuristic concept that was always just around the corner, but would never actually arrive.

Well, the future may be now. Yes, video conferencing, Skype and similar technology are not new, but neither have they been widely used by the average consumer or business. That’s changing, though.

“I think we’ve hit a critical mass,” said Rick Osterloh, head of Skype’s consumer product management. This month, Microsoft announced that it planned to buy Skype, the leader in Internet and voice communication, for a staggering $8.5 billion.

So why is the technology taking off now? What exactly are the options out there?

And, perhaps more important, what impact will this have besides requiring more people who work at home to change out of their pajamas? Are we edging ever closer to a world where we’re never going to leave our houses?

First, a primer on what we’re talking about. There are all sorts of choices out there for those who want to talk face-to-face without being in the same room. Philipp Karcher, a researcher at Forrester Research, helped me sort them out.

First, there are desktop platforms that allow face-to-face video chats and Web conferencing, among them Skype, MSN Messenger, Google, and Yahoo Messenger.

Skype is by far the largest, claiming 170 million users. Calls are free unless they involve more than one person or are from a Skype user to a non-Skype user.

Companies like Fring, Tango and Qik (which has been acquired by Skype), also allow video calling between smartphones and from mobile devices to desktops. Apple, through Facetime, offers video calling between Apple devices.

Just to give you an idea of the popularity of such a concept: the first day Skype began offering video calls on iPhones on Jan. 1, users placed one million video calls from their mobile phones.

Next is the idea of room-based video conferencing. “A lot of people invested in it over the last 20 years,” Mr. Karcher said. That consists of a camera on a screen allowing groups of people to talk to and see each other. Companies are now replacing or upgrading these systems with high-definition systems.

And the “corporate jet of video conferencing,” is Telepresence, which as much as possible immerses people in a lifelike situation, using multiple cameras and screens and specially designed acoustic rooms.

Such technology will probably be slower to catch on, Mr. Karcher said, since the cost is high. Telepresence can cost up to $400,000 a room.

Finally, there is virtual life, which is used most frequently to allow people to virtually attend conventions and conferences. It creates worlds where people — sometimes in the guise of avatars — can “visit” these places and wander around just as they would at a real conference.

The reason we’re finally seeing video calls and conferencing grow so rapidly, Mr. Osterloh said, was “the pervasive adoption of broadband and PCs and really powerful smartphones.

“Whenever technology is first introduced, you see a strong inertia toward using what you’re comfortable with,” he said. “And, of course, there are times you don’t want to see people face-to-face and times you don’t want to do video calls, but generally we’ve seen a huge demand for more and better.”

And as more and more people are telecommuting and not working in the same office — or state or country — there’s more of a need to find other ways to communicate.

My first reaction is to be wary of yet another tool that stops us from getting together in person.

“The more communications channels to the world in our living room, the less likely we are to leave the living room,” said Thomas Lewis, an assistant clinical professor at University of California at San Francisco’s School of Medicine and a practicing psychiatrist.

Shortcuts@nytimes.com

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