Why haven’t Video Calls (Mobile Video Telephony) taken off?


Video call between Sweden and Singapore, on Sony Ericsson K800 over a UMTS mobile network

Image via Wikipedia

It was supposed to be the next big thing but it seems to have fizzled out like MMS. It failed in many 3G-enabled countries that deployed it. Gartner’s consumer mobile hype cycle (July 2007) claims that wireless video calling has failed to create any excitement in the mobile industry, with no demand from either consumers or business users.

Nokia’s VP feels video calling was not successful because it turns you ugly

it’s because the angle at which the front-facing cams are held gives callers a view of your face that “isn’t very flattering.” He mentioned that most webcams are typically placed just above the user’s line of sight, which gives a more pleasing view of the face; obviously, that’s not something you can practically do with your phone most of the time

The first thing that came across my mind was Privacy. You would have to use the speakerphone to do video calls (unless you’re on BT headset or hands-free, which is not true for an overwhelming majority of people) and this compromises privacy in a big way…no one wants people nearby snooping in on their conversations.

I felt there has to be much more to it than just these two reasons, so I asked this question to LinkedIn and IXDA communities to get a feel for why video calls failed from Business and User Experience perspectives, and I received several great responses. I have summarized the primary reasons below.

  • Handset Availability (in techtalk Device Penetration)
  • Call Quality (in techtalk Quality of Service)
  • Perceived as too costly
  • Privacy
  • Don’t want the other person to see how I look
  • Inconvenient
  • Can’t do anything else while on Video Call
  • Video doesn’t add much to the conversation

Handset Availability

3G handset penetration is still low. How do you know if the other party has the service configured? [Marketing Manager at South East Asia at Ericsson]

Perhaps the number of devices supporting video telephony. At least I don’t know anyone who to video call… [Product Marketing Manager - New Business at Universal Electronics]

Call Quality

Video needs to constantly buffer, video breaks up, resolution is low, slow connection, etc. [Owner, http://www.idesignsgroup.com

Video call demands for much greater bandwidth with high sensitivity to latency and frame size. For the longest time, the available video codecs are just not efficient enough on its compression to effect full frame rate video call [Principal at CSC]

Video Calls are bandwidth heavy, and unreliable in terms of quality. Sometimes it’s good other times choppy etc. It has to work like TV all the time from any location. Sort of how audio phoning works [Principal Interaction Designer at Oracle USA]

Perceived as too costly

When it was launch the price was 2 or 3 times more expensive than a voice call. Today in most of the countries it’s the same but there is a perception that it’s still expensive [Marketing Manager at South East Asia at Ericsson]

Price is a barrier or perhaps customers still perceive it as luxury service [Projects Specialist at Telenor Mobile]

Privacy

I think the reasons are psychological rather than anything to do with the cost. People don’t want their privacy to be invaded. Nobody wants to talk on a loud speaker in public. [Sr. RF Consultant]

Do you want to see your boss face , when you just wake up? Probably not. [Marketing Manager at South East Asia at Ericsson]

When you’ve got anything worth displaying in the video, it’s also often too loud and/or impolite to speak through a loudspeaker. Everybody else is there too. Imagine a shop, an office, or a museum. [Senior Interaction Designer, iXDesign]

Don’t want the other person to see how I look

A few other perceptions besides what Nokia’s VP feels:

Ordinary people on a video phone don’t look like people on video should look. We’re all used to seeing people on television who are in make up, well lighted, and in carefully chosen clothing. On a video phone, the presentation of an individual is underwhelming [Technical writer and editor]

Most video calls are designed to extend the concept of a phone call to include video representations of the speakers. As a potential user, I have to ask myself two questions:

1. How do I look?
2. What will the other party learn from seeing me and what will I learn from seeing the other party?

In most cases, the answers aren’t reassuring. I look like a grizzled old coot with a scowl (I’m squinting at the screen). The other party will probably look a lot worse than they would in person. That won’t help either one of us and neither of us will go very far out of our way to use it. [Associate Professor at Auburn University and Owner, interactive Point of View]

If you saw my hair right now, you’d have your answer!
I’m only joking with you just a little — there’s actually quite a bit of truth in my answer.

It really is about image. If you can’t project a Hollywood standard in a video call (and most cannot) — it’s probably a good idea to stick to audio calls. [Writer, Covering the Internet Marketing & Presentation Beats]

You don’t want the other person to see how bored you look by what’s being said or the person you’re having an affair with in the background. [Owner, Digital TX Ltd and IPTV/VoD Consultant]

When you’re in a place that you chose for privacy to make the call, you’ll look creepy in the video. Just look at all the self-made webcam videos in Youtube and you know what I mean [Senior Interaction Designer, iXDesign]

Inconvenient

It’s not convenient to setup video calls typically (too complicated to setup, call connection takes too long, etc.) Need to have the camera constantly track your face (who wants to constantly hold a device looking at their face and always adjust to keep it there) [Owner, http://www.idesignsgroup.com

It’s too much hassle to sit in the right place, have the right lighting etc. to make it worthwhile. I remember when I first used webcams (low res, choppy etc.) the excitement of seeing someone from another part of the world was quickly overcome by constantly wanting to ‘place’ them such that I could be ‘eye to eye’ with them, and be able to see their face properly etc. Typically, lights behind the person that work fine as local ambient light are terrible for the person on the other end of the call – all they see is a silhouette [Principal Interaction Designer at Oracle USA]

Can’t do anything else while on a video call

For video calling you need to have your phone in front of you, which makes other movements and task much less convenient [Managing Director at econet.hu Group's eMusic]

One of the benefits of the phone is that you can multitask…you don’t have to actually pay attention to the conversation (My god, if my mother had a video phone, I’d be dead). [User Experience Consulting & Project Management]

Audio calls, SMS, voicemail, MMS, all can be done while doing something else, either synchronously or asynchronously.

The problem with virtual or simulated experience compared to other extensions of dialogue modes that are more abstract is that it’s just better doing the real thing.  Abstracted communication forms can be highly efficient, they save time, or allow for deeper time when they enter into polychronic modes (a group of friends texting one night as they meet up here or there, or any group social event whether in the real world or some extension of it or a combination of the two like people attending SXSW texting and twittering.)

The asynchronous forms don’t really tax our sense of being that much (obsessive compulsions aside, a problem in any case), you can still very much be focused and present in your being while carrying on a SMS or Twitter exchange with people over time.  So it seems to me, that “video calls” will only ever be a fraction of the usage say synchronous audio phone calls [Social Media Blogger]

Video doesn’t add much to the conversation

Simply seeing the other person on the other end of the line adds very little to the communication. [Director of User Experience at Qik]

In most cases, voice is more than adequate. What real benefit does adding video have to a conversation? You can look at how they interact with you and others, you can recognize cues that you would normally not when just using voice or text, etc…. I don’t think there has been a substantial business case to warrant this in the consumer space [Manager, Information Architecture and Content Management - Trapeze Group]

It’s still remote, and not in person. Pretty much anything you can do with video calls you can do over the phone….so what’s the advantage for all this cost and complexity?
There’s definitely value in it for some uses… but enough to go mainstream… not really. Most people don’t have a need. Even if the technology improved… that wouldn’t create a need. [Web Developer @ CBS Interactive]

Conclusion

It seems like another example where technology has been put before user needs.

The main problem is understanding user behavior and how people use technology. Nobody is taking in consideration what consumers want and the way they behave. This is a typical case were the Telecom industry had put technology before the consumer understanding [Marketing Manager at South East Asia at Ericsson]

Most of the resistance is due to a combination of psychology and a subtle, individual cost-benefit analysis [Associate Professor at Auburn University and Owner, interactive Point of View]

Does this mean it’s the end of the line for video calling…. certainly not…. from the responses I received, turns out there are a few things it’s got going for it. I’ll be covering those in the post FOR video calling.

Note: These are some of the responses I received. You can visit the original LinkedIn question and IXDA post to view all the responses.

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About Sachendra Yadav

Mobilist and Social Media enthusiast
This entry was posted in Mobile, Usability, User Experience and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Why haven’t Video Calls (Mobile Video Telephony) taken off?

  1. Pingback: Why haven’t Video Calls (Mobile Video Telephony) taken off? | Gearfire.com

  2. Sachendra, very good research, with interesting insights from people in the industry.

    However, one myth:
    – Call quality. In a 3G video call, the QoS is guaranteed, as a 64kbps circuit is allocated. So no re-buffering. As video and voice are encoded within 64kbps at 10-15 fps, the video is not extremely sharp, but there is no problem of re-buffering, video break or latency

    Issues of privacy and inconvenience are a true concern, but I would not be surprise that he teenagers of today develop a proper etiquette to know when and to who (close friends , family) video calls are acceptable, and when not. Note that in Philippines, people consider a voice call intrusive, and usually sms first their correspondent to see if available for a phone call.

  3. Jose,

    Agree with you on the myths. I’ll be busting the myths and giving a case for video telephony in my post FOR video calling coming up in next couple of days

  4. Nikki says:

    Another good post!

    Technology – I think the reason it hasn’t yet caught on differs in each country, depending on call and connections costs and coverage. In Australia for eg – video calls for capped personal phone plans aren’t included; whereas your voice calls and sms are. And you’d need to be in 3G area to benefit; ie city.

    Business – I think Video conf is usually used more for planned meetings, not random “need the info now” type of communications. Lots of offices these days have their own video conf setup, or can arrange with local service providers.

    Personal – if you live miles and miles away from family and friends, seeing their face is a huge delight. More so than just the voice on a phone line. And let’s face it, these people know what you look like – and love you regardless ;)

  5. Nikki says:

    ps MMS is massive here in Australia.

  6. Nikki,

    Good points, video calling does have it’s niche market. I’ll be covering that soon.

    Good to know MMS made it in some markets :)

    Thanks for reading and commenting

  7. timple says:

    It doesn’t offer enough to justify the price difference. I live in the UK and the market is dominated by post-pay monthly bundles. These bundles rarely include video call as standard hence the marginal cost is very high. In my view the network provider (www.three.co.uk in my case) should try and use it as a differentiator as opposed to a revenue opportunity. For example on most of their bundles they give us 300 minutes a month to other phones on the same network. If I were them I would make video minutes the same as voice minutes for this allowance. That way I try and get my friends to join the network. As it is I used it a couple of times when I got my phone to try it out, thought it was quite fun, and then saw how much it cost me (because it isn’t included in the bundles) and since then I have not bothered to use it.

  8. amlistening says:

    Good research!

  9. brandonhow says:

    well actually I think there is a more technical reason for why Video conferencing has not taken off. At least this applies to the United States. If we look at the cell networks that broadcast our phone calls we see there are different networks within the United States. There are GSM, CDMA, UMTS, iDen signals and these signals are just for the voice end of the phone calls. In order to broadcast video you need a data plan. So the choices in sending data in the U.S are EV-DO, CDMA2000, Edge, GPRS, HSPA, etc. It took the U.S a while to catch up with the rest of Asia or Europe because we had to get these different networks talking to each other. You see the rest of the world really doesn’t suffer from this problem. Most of the cell networks that consist outside the United States are GSM or 3G. It is easier for technology to talk to each other when they all speak the same language. This is another reason why SMS took forever to get kind of popular and even still we have a long way to go, compared to the rest of the world. But interesting facts and it seems you placed a lot of thought in this article. :)

    Oh check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_mobile_phone_companies
    for more details on cell networks in the U.S.

  10. @timple I believe Vodafone has launched a flat rate 3G plan in UK recently (not sure if that includes video call, although it should) I guess the others will follow suit soon, and rightly so, this is the only business case in which it could go mainstream.

    @brandonhow You’ve raised an excellent point. Not sure how interoperable the video calling service will be in US. For that matter, I’ve heard interoperability issues from guys in Europe as well.
    This is a key issue that needs to be solved, I can’t force all the people I want to video call to be on one network.

    Thanks for reading all of you

  11. kremner says:

    A viable alternative is video email. Video email is getting better all the time and is now sufficiently “baked” even for business use. I have heard the ladies complain, however, that they need to spend more time getting ready for the camera!!! HEY, just telling you what they told me!
    Thanks, from Jonathan Kremner

  12. Pingback: The case FOR Mobile Video Calling « Technology, Mobility, Usability and other Musings

  13. timple says:

    Flat rate for wireless data in the UK does generally not include video calls or voice calls else it would be essentially a flat rate for everything……. As I stated if there is essentially no marginal cost to the operators in hosting a video call (they’ve provided the handsets and the infrastructure already) they should include them in their intra-network bundles if they want to see it gain popularity.

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  19. muggzy says:

    In the UK its just too expensive, the price point is a massive deterrent simple as that. If you have a contract its expensive but imagine if your on Pay as you go? These things are always priced out of reach of the people who would use it most, 16-26 year olds. MMS is the same but its becoming cheaper.

    If it was the same as a voice call it would be massively popular.

  20. I went to Italy last year(july 2007) to attend a convention about a new tecnology that allows you to make video calls for free in 60 contries and when I came back to Brazil from this convention I downloud this 3g applicative and started making video calls with no charge. We just need a 3g iphone or a nokia series n 80 above…and this company started the firsf global wifi network so we just need wifi to comunicate with voice or video for free among the world wide comunity. http://www.telme.sg/gilmarms. and in october they going to release TelmeWorlds it´s going to be the huge like face book and orkut together and we have google as partner this project and A&t. Great. sorry about my English…

  21. Rick Stevens says:

    I just wanted to address the non-mobile side of video telephony. The Ojo video phone is by far the best out there. I won’t bore you will all the technical details as those can be found at http://www.ojophone.com.

    The Ojo video phone purely and simply works!

    DSL or broadband needed, dial a virtual phone number, party answers and has the option to presnt themselves on camera or not and the video streams at TV quality. If the party isn’t home, leave a video message. No messy web cams to setup and operate, no need to pre-arrange calls, no computer needed which is great for grandparents.

    New model coming which will faciliatate multi user calling / conferencing.

    If you want reliable quality then it’s worth paying for a standalone device and the monthly service. If you can’t afford it, stay with the troubled Skype. You get what you pay for!

  22. Techgutter.com says:

    By the way MMS is massively popular to say it has fizzled out is hugely inaccurate.

  23. Pingback: Is The New iPhone About To Make Video Calling & Mobile TV Popular? « Mobile Inc

  24. Danny Poetra says:

    This blog give me information that i need … tx :-)

  25. Pingback: Is The New iPhone About To Make Video Calling & Mobile TV Popular? | Mobile Inc

  26. Rick says:

    I have a home video phone. Although I agree with some of the reasonings against a “mobile” video phone..I love mine in the home. Of course I do not want to see my boss, or a random telemarketer, but I do want to see my kids and mom…there are maybe five people in my “calling circle” with a few I want “to see” on a regular basis who live at a distance. Why not? The quality is wonderful and it is fun. On the go, I prefer to text not even call. I think most people are like me and the adoption of video phones in the home will take off once people realize it is not expensive, not a web cam, but a phone that you can simply pick up and make a call.

  27. Comwave says:

    Excellent comment Rick. I couldnt agree with you more on only wanting to have a video with your closet friends. I wouldnt want to have a video call with everyone that calls me.

    Home Phone Comwave

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