Archive for January 10th, 2014

Anyone could predict the automobile; only a science fiction writer could predict the traffic jam

So I was Skyping with my friend Janna 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?

Janna 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?