Video calling anybody?

I was thinking about this whilst on the top deck of the bus on the way home the other day. Have you ever seen anybody making a video call to someone using their mobile phone? I mean really making one, not just testing it out for the first time, but really doing it, like“in the wild”; i.e. on the street, on a bus, in the pub?

Amazingly, I haven’t yet.

Video calling was meant to be one of the reasons why billions of pounds/euros/dollars were spent by the mobile phone companies building new “3G” (3rd generation) mobile networks over the last few years. So now that “3G” and phones with video calling have been around for a while there should be a sufficient number of people with video calling capability in their pockets for us to be able to make a reasonable guess as to its popularity. But my personal observations tell me that despite the fact that people have it, people just don’t do it. Video calling that is.

Many commentators in the mobile phone industry have given many good reasons why people just don’t do it. And I’ve studied those reasons. Pondered at them. Thought about them hard. And whilst I agree that many of the reasons given definitely have something to do with it, there is one reason that is never quite given. In my own view, it’s the real reason why people don’t do it. Or rather the real reason why people won’t do it.

Even if all of the other reasons, issues and problems were taken away, there is is one reason why people will not do video calling on their mobile phones.

It’s not just the fact that you turn off the 3G capability on your 3G phone in order to conserve battery life. (Most people I know who have 3G mobile phones do this!) No, it’s not just about that. It’s not just about the fact that it’s sometimes more expensive to make a video call compared to a normal “voice only” call. And it’s not just about the fact that you never quite know if the other person you wanna call has a 3G video calling phone, and is in an area with 3G coverage and hasn’t switched off their 3G capability in order to save battery life just like you do.

And even if these issues were overcome (which I’m confident they will over time) and everyone had 3G everywhere, and everyone had video calling, and fantastic 3G battery life and it wouldn’t cost any more to make video calls, then it wouldn’t only be the fact that you don’t generally like the idea of showing the other person how you’re looking at that moment. “No I haven’t just gotten out of bed boss.” Or exactly where you are at that moment. “No, I’m not really in the pub darling.“. No. And it’s not just about the fact that you don’t want other people nearby to you overhearing your entire conversation – in fully unprivate full-duplex as opposed to half private half-duplex. No, and it’s not just about the fact that when you get fed up of seeing the other person in poor-quality jerk-motion you can’t just “upgrade” the video call into a standard voice-only call. And that’s after you’ve worked out how to make a video call in the first place (there’s no “make a video call” button on any mobile phones that I’ve ever seen). Nope. It’s none of these reasons that will confine video calling to occasional uses, like grandchildren calling grandparents far away. Or couples where one partner is far away from another for a period of time. Or possibly in some cases where you might want to show someone something, like “see what I’m seeing” type of thing. No. No. No. If all the above problems were overcome somehow, the real reason why you won’t make video calls is this:

Video calling gives the other person a great view of your nostrils

No joke. It’s a classic case of bad usability. With the help of my most gracious model above you can see that the most natural holding position of a mobile phone is the position that we all know very well; the phone is a comfortable distance away from the face so that she can see what’s on the screen clearly, and her arm is comfortably bent at the elbow, with the elbow resting against her side. The net result of this completely natural and comfortable way of holding the phone is that the video calling camera on the front side of the phone is now at an angle which is acute to the horizontal plane of her face. Which means that if you were lucky enough to receive a video call from her, you would get a great view of her nostrils – in extra wide-angle perspective. And she would see herself in the corner of her screen and probably go “eeuugghh“, and compensate for the fact she’s looking like that by extending her arm out so that the phone camera is now in the horizontal plane of her face. Like below.

Video calling requires you to hold your phone out in the horizontal plane of your face.

The problem with this pose is that it’s unnatural, and uncomfortable and requires a dramatic extension of personal space. And won’t last for very long. Your arm will get tired very quickly, and when done in public, your spatial self-awareness will cause a tendency to resist it. And so it will be the reason why video calling will never be as popular as regular calling, even if all the other problems were solved. In my view it will be the reason why most people will just not do it at all.

(All the pictures used in this blog posting were taken with my mobile phone)

This posting featured in the Carnival of the Mobilists weekly mobile blog-news roundup number 69 at Mobile Marketing and Spam on April 16th 2007.

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