For decades, we were told that in the future, telephone calls would be replaced with video. In 1879, Punch, a satirical British magazine, offered an illustration of a hypothetical “telephonoscope.” In the 1920s, according to Smithsonian, many of the inventors doing early work on what became television conceived of the technology not as a broadcast medium but as a two-way system. The Jetsons promised, in 1962, that videophones would be part of work and everyday life at some point in the future.
That future seemed to arrive just two years later, when Bell introduced the Picturephone. But despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on research, the technology was a commercial failure, as were later attempts at landline video phones stretching into the 1990s.
Then came the internet, personal computers with built-in webcams, Skype, and, a few years later, the ubiquitous smartphone. Suddenly video calls didn’t require a dedicated piece of hardware, instead becoming part of a menu of communications options alongside audio calls and text messages. Last year, Facebook-owned WhatsApp said that its 1.2 billion users make 55 million video calls a day.
Videoconferencing has arrived in the business realm as well, allowing telecommuters and global leaders to join meetings remotely. But there’s clearly room for growth. A 2016 survey by West Corporation, a communication and network infrastructure provider, found that 54% of U.S. workers regularly participate in video conferences. However, “[o]nly 23% of workers report using paid, enterprise services, while 70% use free tools like Skype or FaceTime—suggesting a lack of company standardization or policies.”
More to the point, does today’s videoconferencing actually make us more connected and productive? Even when the technology is working perfectly, it fails to deliver much of what we get from a face-to-face conversation—eye contact, body language, whispered sidebars. A 2017 study by Yale SOM’s Michael Kraus found that we understand emotions more easily through voice-only communication than through voice and video.
To understand the present and future of video conferencing, Yale Insights talked with Scott Wharton ’95, the vice president and general manager of the video collaboration group at Logitech. He has more than two decades of experience as an entrepreneur and executive in the communications industry.
Q: What’s the state of video conferencing as an industry?
A colleague of mine says videoconferencing has been a complete failure because only 2.5% of all conference rooms have videoconferencing capabilities. That means 97.5% don’t. But when Bill Gates started talking about PCs on every desk 40 years ago, people laughed at him because PCs were $8,000 and they sucked. Today, not only do we have them at every desk, but everyone has one in their pocket.
Videoconferencing will be the same way. The video phone has been around since AT&T introduced it at the 1964 World’s Fair. But I’d say the industry really launched 25 to 30 years ago and is just now starting to take off. I think we’re around 10 years away from an audio-only call seeming absurd.
Q: What’s the track for that level of adoption?
Videoconferencing is mirroring email. Consumer versions like Skype, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime are free and offer a way for people to get used to it. For businesses, it used to be that a videoconferencing system cost $50,000 to $100,000 and was only used for executives. Now, it can be in any conference room for $1,000 to $2,000. You’d never have a conference room for eight people and only four chairs because you couldn’t make the return on investment for the chairs. That’s ridiculous. Video is getting to be part of the furnishing for a room.
Our biggest challenge is people using a laptop for a group video call and thinking that’s good enough. Videoconferencing has had a Goldilocks issue. Most of us use our phones or laptops. A few people have access to these incredible $100,000 systems. What’s been missing up until recently is the middle. What people want is a sweet spot of great audio and video at a consumerized price and usability. Videoconferencing is starting to hit the Goldilocks sweet spot.
Q: Are there key hurdles?
Up until recently, one of the problems with videoconferencing was that if you rolled it out within an enterprise, it really only worked internally. Even consumer services had hurdles to connecting. Today new services typically let you send out a link and for whoever you invite, it just works on their browser or their phone. The barrier of being able to connect by video has really gone away. The cost and complexity have gone away. All the conditions are in place to make it mainstream. The next thing is cultural. It’s not technology or economic anymore. It’s how do you get people to actually use it.
Q: What are the drivers for people overcoming those cultural hurdles?
Travel is costly, it’s a pain, and there are delays. For some time, people have recognized video is an important tool to avoid long-distance travel, but we’re also seeing video can be a means to not travel across town. Someone on my team was in India with a salesperson who wanted to take all our meetings in person. They literally sat in traffic for three hours missing an in-person meeting to sell a company on the value of video. We do lots of those pitches by video now.
At some tech companies, where they’re paying people a lot of money and crossing campus is 15 or 20 minutes, people increasingly do video. The cultural shift is happening as we’re seeing videoconferencing is more and more a productivity tool and less of a travel-avoidance tool.
It’s also letting people who are in different places around the world link up in a different way. The design of organizations can change when we have these tools. We’re organized around the headquarters, but if people can be equal contributors to a team from anywhere, how much more open will we be to finding people in different places? It may change who you work with and how international companies want to be. The best people for a given capacity might not always be in the United States. They might be in China or Vietnam. Today we still largely say it’s too hard to work with them, but I think that will change over time.
Q: There are businesses pulling back from remote work. How well can video overcome that desire for oversight and serendipity that come with a central office?
It’s interesting when you think about what’s happening today. People are either going to be even more dispersed or more local. More people are moving into cities because they want to have that intense serendipitous experience, but then more people are working with China than ever before.
Technology won’t change that great experience of bumping into a colleague walking down the hall or seeing someone from another firm on the street. But it will help with the reality that the experts that you need are dispersed around the world. We will probably continue to need a little of both. I’m excited about what this could bring. There are lots of other challenges in the world, today, but this is a bright spot. It’s exciting. It’s fun.
Q: Explain some of the exciting and fun things on the horizon for videoconferencing.
Today videoconferencing is almost as good as meeting face-to-face, but it’s not quite as good. A couple years ago, when my son was 12, we had been watching a lot of the Golden State Warriors basketball games on TV. They were having the best season ever. He had never been to a game, so I asked him, if he wanted to go. I thought he was going to say, “Wow, dad, you’re the greatest, this is so cool.” Instead, he thought about it, and said, “No, I think it’s better watching it at home. The tickets are really expensive right now, and you’re a cheapskate, so we’ll be sitting in the highest seats and our view won’t be that good. When we’re home, the announcers are great. I get to pause it to go to the bathroom. And I can eat my own food.”
I thought that was really interesting. He described a situation where technology made being remote better than being there in person. How do you apply that to what we do in videoconferencing? Well, you can take a lot of the same ideas. Multiple cameras. Directors. Insights.
Imagine if every video conference gave you a Steven Spielberg experience? Video is going to get smarter. It’s bringing together Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Steven Spielberg knows exactly where to put the cameras and when to cut from one to the next. Now put that into software. Cameras have been dumb and expensive. They’re getting smarter and cheaper, so it will be very possible to have many in one room.
We’re working on some technology where computer vision and AI can automatically frame the shot. Even if you have 20 people in a room, just like humans are smart enough to know where the action is, AI can figure out to choose the person who stands up and walks to the whiteboard.
Imagine if you also get data and statistics about how the meeting went for the participants. Maybe you want to know if the 20 people in the meeting were paying attention or not. Were they happy or not? Computer vision technology will actually give you more and better data than if they were all in a room with you. It can tell you how the audience was reacting to you and where the important lines were and when you lost everyone. Again, we don’t want video to be almost as good as being there; we want it to be better.
Q: Those sound amazing, but today it can be surprisingly difficult to launch a simple video call.
We’re working on the usability of all this. A remote control with 30 buttons is never intuitive. We’re moving to a point where all you have to do is touch a tablet screen and the meeting automagically starts. All the pieces in the system are synced; there no messing with video, audio, or calendars. It has taken a lot of hard work to get all those pieces to line up, but we’re pretty much there now.
In 5 or 10 years, you’ll start seeing meetings happen in holograms and 3-D. I know that sounds crazy, but a lot of the technology like bandwidth, processing, low cost cameras, and AI/computer vision to do it is already available. We again have to do that work of getting the pieces to work together. Instead of it being on a TV, you’ll probably have heads-up VR/AR displays. They may look like regular eyeglasses.
A whole array of cameras will capture me and project my 3-D imagine to your glasses. At some point, the quality will get good enough that we won’t even be able to tell what’s real and what’s not. The technology will kind of disappear.