Debbie Driscoll, another member of our soccer team, is conducting market research on video phones. Debbie’s recruited Joel and Mac and me (and Kris’ sister, Tiffany, too!) to help test one system.

I’ve always been fond of the concept of video phones; they’ve been present in science fiction for decades (The Jetsons, 2001: A Space Odyssey, etc.), but they’ve never made it into our homes.

Our group is testing a computer-based video phone that operates via four components: a webcam, a microphone/earphone headset, a broadband connection, and a piece of software that ties all of these together. Last night was the first chance I’d had to test the videophone in action.

Here’s a screenshot from my conversation with Mac (click to open a larger image in a new window):

The videophone is fun to use, despite my initial skepticism.

It’s not without its problems, though. Image and sound quality are poor at times, and may degrade over the course of a call (more testing will determine this, I suppose). The videophone headset incapacitates my computer’s speakers; if I want to play a game or listen to mp3s, I either have to wear the headset (which has only one earpiece) or crawl around behind the computer, unplugging and plugging wires.

In order to actually get paid for participating in this market research — you didn’t think we were doing this for free did you? — we need to complete a journal entry after each call. For example:

Date: Tue, 06 May 2003 21:56:44 -0700
To: [email protected]
From: [email protected]
Subject: J.D.’s Videophone Post-call Journal 1.05

Call Date: 06 May 2003
Start time of call: 09:50 p.m.
End time of call: 09:57 p.m.
Who did you speak with? Mackenzie Smith
They called me / I called them He called me.

What was fun about this call? Why?
This call was fun because both the video quality and the audio quality were the best for any call yet. Mac’s voice was perfectly clear, though he sounded as if he had a cold. The video was not perfect, but that’s probably because I had adjusted the video quality to the lowest setting after deciding that it had no affect on my calls with Joel. Another fun thing, though not wholly relevant, was that Mac and I were both able to tell that things Weren’t Quite Normal: he noted that I was at Kris’ computer instead of mine (because the videophone software refuses to install on my computer) and I noted that he had flipped his video image.

What was annoying? Why?
There was nothing about the call itself that was annoying this time. I was most annoyed by having to wear the headset. I would have liked to be able to use the in-camera microphone and to listen to Mac via my computer’s speakers. (I have concerns that the videophone’s headset will prevent me from using my normal speakers because I’m too lazy to crawl around unplugging cables and plugging them back all the time.)

Please list the features you used.
Mac called while I was in the middle of another call to Joel. The videophone would not let me answer Mac’s call until I had ended the call to Joel. This feature seemed pretty straightforward, though I would make one change.

What changes would you like to make to the videophone system? Why?
It seemed sensible to me that if I were to tell the alert box that I wanted to connect to Mac, that it would warn me that doing so would disconnect from Joel and then give me the option to do so. Instead, I had to cancel out of the alert box, disconnect from Joel, and then take Mac’s call. Of course — and you already know this — what the three of us *really* wanted to do was connect for a conference call.

I wonder if the difficulties in speaking with Joel stem from the settings he’s given his hardware, either in the control panel, the individual drivers, or the videophone application itself. Maybe the three of us (Mac, Joel, and myself) can get together and compare notes regarding our setups.


I’m curious to see how we use the videophone during the next few weeks.


On 07 May 2003 (09:34 AM),
Joelah said:

Here’s why the videophone is exciting. I’m saying this because we all know immediately why it sucks. It’s exciting to me because I believe it creates a very new kind of conversation. I’m a frustrated English major, I live for conversation. I’m not good at chatting, I yearn to find “the point” in most of my interactions with other humans. So the videophone, by making us confront grainy and unflattering visuals of our friends, is inherently hostile to chatting. So, we try and have conversations (thus far mostly about the videophone itself) but meanwhile our BODIES are doing the chatting. We cannot make eye contact with each other, so we listen to each other’s voices while staring at the way Mac’s shoulder hunches when he stresses a certain word. J.D. flicks his fingers when he’s got several things to say in a row, then abruptly stops, leans back, and makes his face expressionless when I interrupt.
I want to take this further. I want to have these strange visual conversations with my friends while doing physical things that interfere or affect verbal meaning. Like shaving, or reading a magazine. Kris and Aimee tried to do some chatting while J.D. seemingly pranced in the background (or maybe that was just the way JD moves when no one else is around). In response, I stood behind Aimee and lifted up my shirt. Instant voyeurism.
I was fortunate yesterday to actually have something to show people while we were talking. I had made mosaic out of broken shards of tile, so when I felt like we had to show something to each other because our bodies were doing more talking than we were, I ran and got it. I showed it to JD, who was confused. What the hell was this fractured blue square that had suddenly replaced Joel’s ridiculous chin-stroking? JD didn’t know about the mosaic project, so it took some conversation to convince him that, it was okay, the mosaic was a friend, something to be excited about. This was a fascinating moment. Instead of speaking to a three-quarter profile, he was talking to me looking at a grainy image of a somewhat sloppily created piece of home art. I felt like the very first grandma who ever hauled a murky, grainy daguerrotype of little Amos out of her leathern satchel and thrust it unexpectedly at an innocent stranger.

On 07 May 2003 (09:55 AM),
J.D. said:

Well said, my friend. You’ve touched upon things that never would have occurred to me.

Videophones, if the technology takes off, could introduce a new fundamental form of communication. It’s strange using one because it borrows elements from communication devices with which we are all familiar — telephones, television, computers — and integrates them into something new, something familiar yet strangely disconcerting.

For example, as I observed to Joel last night, when he holds an object (such as his mosaic) up to the camera and he is obscured from view, my natural reaction is: aha! I cannot see Joel, therefor he cannot see me and, thus, it must be safe to pick my nose. It doesn’t work that way.

And there is something about the videophone that brings about greater exhibitionism, new ways of sharing. Especially for friends and family who are separated by distance, such as Kris and Tiffany, the videophone allows sharing that might not occur often. If Tiffany, for example, gives birth to twins, Kris might not meet them for months or years. Yet, through a videophone, she could see them (and the rest of the family) every day. (I keep thinking that it’d be nice if Paul and Amy Jo were doing this study, too &mash; we could meet their pets, see their house, etc.)

I’m curious to see how Kris’ parents like the videophone. I don’t know how often they visit Tiffany and Richard, but if they do swing by Palm Desert in the next month, we’ll have to arrange a video conversation.

Again, what would really be cool is the ability to do conference calls with the videophone. It’d be great to have a joint call with Dana and Andrew, for example, or with Mac and Joel.

The cool thing is: this videophone technology is available now. I’ll have to check with Debbie, but I don’t think this software is secret. I think it’s out there, in the wild, available for anyone to use. All that’s required is a webcam and a microphone. If this isn’t some top-secret software project, I’ll post a link to the download site in case any of you already have the required equipment and want to join the fun.

On 07 May 2003 (12:58 PM),
J.D. said:

I checked with Debbie, and she says that anyone with the proper equipment (webcam and broadband) can download the videophone software from the Interval Media web site.

It’s not likely that many of you out there meet these requirements, but if you do have the proper equipment, and you install the software, give me a buzz. As you might guess, my username is jdroth.

On 07 May 2003 (01:22 PM),
Tiffany said:

I first want to say that I am not having twins! Not happening, are you taking Mom’s side on the baby issue?

Mom would love this idea. But both Kris and I would find talking to her on a video phone even more annoying then talking to her on a phone. She would be trying to hold up things for up to see and running to get ‘just one more thing’. I do no think that the folks are going to be here this month because I have trips the next few weeks.

I did notice that your inserted phone is much less clear then the image I got of Kris.

On 07 May 2003 (01:47 PM),
Dave said:

The geek in me finds this concept quite appealing, however, the slightly luddite streak in me compels me say that I like the fact that people can’t see me picking my nose when I’m talking to them. As, no doubt, do they. At times I appreciate being a disembodied voice.

On 07 May 2003 (09:37 PM),
Drew said:

Okay, okay, West Wing is a damn fine show.

On 07 May 2003 (10:30 PM),
dowingba said:

I think I would prefer the “phone-based” videophone to a “computer-based” one. I just can’t make myself trust computers (or other digital media) to handle sensory data like sound/vision, especially in a “real time” situation like a phone call.

On 14 May 2003 (10:44 AM),
Dana said:


Using the videophone connection last night worked fairly well, I thought, even if I didn’t have a camera. Did you figure out if it was Mac’s call that caused you to lose audio?

I definitely think you need to suggest the answering machine functionality, though. And some support for interoperability with other software, possibly through a server-based translation from one protocol to another (or client-based support for a wider range of protocols).

Just my suggestions, though. It worked well long hop, sound was good, and sliced through the firewall with no problem from my end. Didn’t even have to reconfigure.

On 15 April 2005 (11:57 AM),
lemec said:

je veux avoir plus d’information sur les videophones

One Reply to “Videophone”

  1. vicky bartlett says:

    hi i am looking for the snap realy as the ogo video phone so i can download and some one told me about that so wonder where i am looking at and i need the link so i can get westie stuff thanks !! and see if i can get apply get one also thanks !

    by vicky bartlett

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