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10 January 2014 @ 10:19 am
Anyone could predict the automobile; only a science fiction writer could predict the traffic jam  
So I was Skyping with scarlettina the other day (and when did that become a verb, anyway?) and I reflected upon the fact that video calling is something that had been part of "the future" so long that it kind of snuck up on us when it became the present.

Video calling has been possible, even practical, for over 50 years. AT&T's video phone was a memorable part of the 1964 World's Fair, and I'm sure there were prototypes much earlier. I remember when I was a kid that a variety of video phone technologies were introduced every year or so, every one promising to be The Wave of the Future. Yet, even though each of these was technically and economically feasible, every one failed to catch on in any meaningful way.

Many people, myself among them, thought that video calling never would catch on, not because it was technically infeasible but because it was socially undesirable. You might want to see the person you were talking to, we reasoned, but who wants to be seen wearing whatever it was you happened to be wearing when the phone rang?

Until... well, I'm not sure when. Some time ago -- it feels like three to ten years -- something changed. And now people are Skyping and FaceTiming and Google Hangouting all over the place. It's practically normal.

When exactly did this happen? And what changed to make it possible?

scarlettina theorized that it was the widespread adoption of smart phones with front-facing cameras that made the difference, but my gut feel is that the normalization of video calling is a bit earlier than that. My guess is that the inflection point might be the 2003 Iraq war, which may have been the first major event that combined adequate and widespread technology infrastructure (laptops with Internet and video cameras) with long-term overseas deployment of large numbers of lower- and middle-income Americans. Because of this war, millions of average Americans have used this technology to communicate with loved ones who were otherwise inaccessible, and once they've started doing it (and bought the hardware, and climbed the technology learning curve) they will keep doing it with their friends.

Another alternative explanation is, as it has been for so many other technologies, pornography. But I think that ChatRoulette and Cam Girls postdate the widespread adoption of video calling rather than being an instigator.

When do you think video calling became mainstream, and why?
Luke McGuffholyoutlaw on January 10th, 2014 06:35 pm (UTC)
Jane Hawkins worked on the telephony SDK in the late 90s/early 00s, and it had lots of API for video calling.

I feel like it's more recent than 2003 that it became mainstream, just the last four or five years. I still haven't done it myself.

One of the objections was always that people wouldn't want to be seen in their houseclothes, so maybe a nontechnological easing of its acceptance was the greater casualness of dress.
Dave O'Neilldaveon on January 10th, 2014 07:00 pm (UTC)
I think there will be more of a divergence than it being normal. For things where people want to see the face - couples calling, certain business calls etc... it's already pretty normal via Skype, Facetime, Google - for standard 'phone' calls, then it probably won't be because of the ergonomics - it's one thing doing a video call when you're sitting in a fixed position, quite another walking around doing other stuff.

I think the interesting question will be if younger users find it any more interesting than they find voice calling (i.e. not very) - and things become more textual.
Dave O'Neilldaveon on January 10th, 2014 07:02 pm (UTC)
Separately, I think there's a lot of panel mileage for conventions in exploring the changing 'face' of human interactions. I've bounced myself off a number of fan related email lists because they'll so anal about the WAY THE LIST MUST WORK that I can't actually interact with them anymore. It's just too alien to how email and text based communications work for me in the 21st century.
Emilytakumashii on January 10th, 2014 08:25 pm (UTC)
I put more weight than you do on the availability of technology. I had a laptop with a camera and Skype in 2008, and I couldn't get video calling to work. It took up too much bandwidth and too much processing power.

My memory of it is that the cam girl thing started in the early 2000s -- it was easier from a technological point of view, because it was one-way rather than two-way. Webcams for home surveillance/nanny surveillance also started gaining popularity around then.

I think it was around 2006 that video chatting started to become more mainstream -- higher-end laptops started to be shipped with built-in cameras above the screen. Even if webcams are really affordable, I think in some ways it's easier if the technology is already built in so you may as well try it out than if you have to make an affirmative decision that you want to get a webcam.
Nicholas: oracnwhyte on January 11th, 2014 06:58 am (UTC)
I agree with this. Laptops with webcams became standard around 2006; when I changed job in 2007, it was impossible *not* to get a laptop with camera. (Skype was only released in August 2003, but caught on fast.) The wars (Afghanistan as well as Iraq) were already well under way by then.

By contrast, camgirls have been round since at least the turn of the century,
eub on January 11th, 2014 08:03 am (UTC)
I think maybe the key is that there was an incremental technology path. Webcams were important to normalize two-way video, but webcams were around long before people had the bandwidth for video -- remember how they sent periodic stills? Webcams drove the feedback cycle of cheap consumer hardware until it was easy and normal to point a crummy camera at yourself, which then made Skype a no-brainer as soon as the broadband got there, and then cameras are cheap and useful enough that they get built into laptops (well before smartphones).
billeyler: work Popejoy accountantbilleyler on January 10th, 2014 09:20 pm (UTC)
This is said with only a bit of tongue-in-cheek, but the mainstreaming of the 1:1 cam came about when my 50 year old cousin, who is on disability for several reasons and has virtually no income, couldn't live without it. I've never done it myself. Yet.
threeoutsidethreeoutside on January 11th, 2014 06:13 pm (UTC)
Your post reminded me of how excited I was - for about ten seconds - when walking through a Sears store in 1968 I saw a "video telephone" displayed! I rushed over to look at it - and was crestfallen to find that it only transmitted black and white still images of the person on the other end of the call - at a refresh rate of about twenty seconds. Uh, nope. I used to pine for the Dick Tracy TV/radio wristwatch. But now that I could have something hugely more powerful - a "smart" phone - I'm not interested. (And yes, I am going to keep using the quotation marks. I'm a codger.)
Ramblin_Phylramblin_phyl on January 11th, 2014 08:15 pm (UTC)
d-i-l became a fan of Skype early on so she could call home to Japan for free. Businesses use the process for conference calls involving multiple locations and nations for free--a lot cheaper than sending reps by plane in business class. Cost is a big factor.