Video Conferencing on Mobile Platforms: Promises, Expectations, Challenges

Mobile endpoints have become an indispensable tool for today’s users: most of us cannot even imagine going without using a mobile phone or a tablet during our working day. With the rise of mobile devices has come the development of mobile video communications, which comes with benefits and challenges for both users and developers.

According to a recent survey by TrueConf, 10% of enterprise customers already use video on mobile devices, double the number of users in 2013. Furthermore, the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) trend is increasingly popular in the enterprise video sector. The number of companies implementing mobile video conferencing solutions to enhance the efficiency of their business is growing on a daily basis. This practice is allows companies to increase mobility several times over, and helps employees perform their work more quickly regardless of their location. It gives employees more freedom and fosters company loyalty.

In theory, the market is ready to adopt this technology, which should make further development easier. Unfortunately, this is not yet applicable: Developers do not pay enough attention to the ergonomics and application of mobile endpoint conferencing. The fantasy of ‘Hollywood’ technology, where everything runs smoothly and without the need to work through the challenges of developing creative and useful solutions, is impeding progress. The real state of things is far away from movie standards, since there are a lot of technological and psychological aspects involved in exceeding current standards. Those issues do not make a huge difference for casual users of mobile endpoint video conferencing—students, young people, individuals talking to friends and family—but some current issues with mobile video conferencing are real problems for enterprises. Those are the issues we will cover in this article.

Technical Issues of Transmitting Video

Let’s imagine that we have a magical, perfect video conferencing device held in our hands… But how exactly are we holding it? The distance should be close enough for the picture to be large, so we could at least see the image of our partner. An optimal distance for a large smartphone or a tablet would be around 0.5 meters from the eyes. The next goal is keeping your image within the frame. It is important to remember that unlike the “selfie” view, there will be an image of our partner on the screen. This means that we will either have to control the camera angle blindly, or with the help of a tiny self-view picture in the corner of the screen.

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Technically, if device manufacturers could find common grounds with each other and stop placing frontal cameras in random places, it would not cause major discomfort at such a distance. If only we could count out the view angle from the given equation! Our reflexes tell us to hold the screen at the chest level so we could still be able to see objects in front of us if necessary. Alas, at this angle the camera will capture us from underneath, showing only the beautiful scenery of our chin.

We certainly will project an impression of professional directness by looking at our partner face-on. But is it always appropriate? For one thing, it is uncomfortable and dangerous to hold a mobile device at eye level with your hands stretched out for long periods. It would be a different story if we were seated at a table: in this case, the optimal screen position is slightly below the eye level with a slight tilt. Thus the camera will capture us at almost the same angle as a real person would see us with their own eyes. But could such video communication be considered truly mobile?

One technical innovation we should expect in the nearest future is the introduction of image stabilization—both for cameras and screens of mobile devices.

Technical Issues of Transmitting Sound

Okay, we’ve got through the video—now let’s talk sound. Hands-free mode is comfortable, but who wants their private business conversations to be a matter of public domain? Plus, hands-free is not very useful in noisy surroundings. There is always the option to use a headset, and good sound quality and privacy make corded and wireless headsets a popular phone accessory. Nevertheless, a brief business call on the run or at the wheel is not the same as talking face-to-face with someone you want to impress (otherwise, why even bother to make a video call?). In such cases, even the most elegant and unnoticeable headset may ruin the image you are trying to build. Maybe, this problem will fix itself when at some time in the future, a headset will be considered as an inevitable accessory akin to a watch, and it will be proudly displayed as part of a businessman’s style.

Psychological Issues of Mobile Video Conferencing

Let’s shift from technical issues towards psychological issues which are far more severe that it may seem on first glance. In theory, any problem can be solved via a letter, ordinary or electronic. If rapid response is necessary, you can use instant messaging, though people still prefer to hear the voice of a partner during communication. However, communication covers more than a formal exchange of information: A significant amount of information is transmitted and received via non-verbal means. We analyze the intonation, pauses, and mannerisms of our partner. Research by Ray Birdwhistell show that words only transmit 7% of information during an average conversation, while non-verbal sounds (voice pitch, intonation) transmit 38%, and silent interactions count for 55%. Very often those non-verbal elements are more important for us than the actual content of what has been said.

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Even when there is an opportunity to talk via phone, people prefer to meet in person—looking into another’s eyes can give us enough information even without using words. Because of these factors, the level of interaction available during video conferencing is superior in many ways to a simple phone call, but requires more attention due to the amount of visual and aural information. You can write a letter anywhere, and all it takes to make a phone call is a quiet environment, but video calls are a whole different story: an inappropriate appearance, outfit, surroundings or intrusive companion can ruin an entire call. That is why the majority of video conferencing sessions are not conducted impulsively, but during a scheduled time and in comfortable, professional surroundings. This approach does not significantly change for users, whether they use mobile or desktop video conferencing systems.

Summary

It may sound as if I am skeptical about the future of mobile video conferencing, but that is not what I seek to convey. I have believed in its viability for 10 years, and I still do today. However, my experience tells me that a simple mimicking of a phone call model with added video will not be enough.

Mobile video conferencing has a range of problems, like bad frontal cameras without optical stabilization and variable placement of cameras on different devices, along with unstable communication channels that complicate the transmission of your video stream to your partner with decent quality.

To resolve these issues, we need to find new ways of application, form a new video communication etiquette, and create new solutions that will be not only on the top of technological progress, but will address social progress, too. Vendors will have to create more flexible and adaptive software, lower the battery power consumption, and extend the range of application of a mobile device (e.g. as a remote control during presentations). The result will be worth trying, since mobile video conferencing has a range of completely unique features that have spread across the world as the availability rises. The entire infrastructure is already in the user’s hands, and the application costs promise to be rather low. Now let’s remember at which degree the users are ready to accept a new hot product as soon as it will be ready to use. This combination is capable of producing an explosive emergence into a market with billions of potential consumers in a matter of months. Someone ready to provide products for this market will immediately become a legend in the new mobile IT revolution, and become unreachable by his competitors.

About the Author

This article was prepared by Stas Soldatov, CTO of TrueConf.

Photo credit: Eak KGunnar Bothner-By / Ebeen

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