Videoteleconferencing’s tell

Video-teleconferencing may have finally found s reason to exist.


According to a friend who is deep into a business plan than leverages video teleconferencing as an enabling technology, one vendor tells him that online poker is pushing the popularity of video calls; not team meetings, not holiday calls to the in-laws, not porn, but a new form of online poker where the players agree to use their webcams to come closer to the smoke-filled backrooms of poker lore. You’ve doubtlessly seen online poker players on ESPN playing against the old-school guys like Doyle Brunson. The online players are so unaccustomed to showing their faces and playing behind the anonymity of a virtual poker table that they resort to sunglasses and hoodies to mask the tells that a classic player use to read whether or not an opponent is bluffing. Now, in so-called “live dealer games,” a sub-culture of video teleconferencing poker players is emerging, a trend predicted last year  in Poker News, when player Barry Greenstein said:

“You’ll use “video conferencing” situations where when you play online. People will be able to look at you, they will be able to see that you’re playing it. They will be able to see that you’re not in a conference with someone else and that it’s the same guy playing the whole time. As least maybe as we get to the final table or the final few tables, and you will not only, onscreen, be able to see your eight other opponents as you get to the final table, but so will everyone else have kind of this video room of people playing online, and it will look like live poker that will be played online.”

Having spent the past two months in discussions with a video teleconferencing company about a possible position (they passed on me), I’ve spent some time getting more familiar with the landscape, having last dug in on video teleconferencing in the early 90s when I was still reporting on technology for Forbes and the first PC based solutions were beginning to emerge thanks to the H.234 video standard, and some early efforts by Intel to move videoconferencing onto the PC and out of the dedicated ISDN systems such as PictureTels.

The results were less than satisfactory, and for most of the past 20 years anyone with a  PC and the will to buy a web cam could experience video calling thanks to CUSeeMe, iChat, and eventually any two-bit chat client worth its salt from Microsoft NetMeeting to MSN to Yahoo and Google Talk.

As a kid the phone book had a picture of the first AT&T Picturephone — rolled out for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. This struck me, a six year-old, as very interesting and in synch with what George Jetson was concurrently using on his cartoon and Dick Tracy on his wrist in the Sunday funnies. A few years later Stanley Kubrick revived the concept in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and by the time I was a young adult when the first video-teleconferencing systems made their commercial debut, I was primed to be a user. The future of the phone was TV.

The reality, after two decades of video telephony, is a lot less compelling. Video calls are intrusive, contrived, and an imposition where everyone loses the ability to multitask, have to worry about whether or not the sun is shining too brightly over my shoulder or my hair is combed. Once a call is arranged — and they seem to always need to be arranged ( impromptu calls are not appreciated in my personal experience) the dread begins and because the action is taking place down here, on the screen, where the caller’s face appears, not up on top of the laptop’s bezel where the camera is, eye contact is rarely ever made. In the end, seeing the person I am speaking to has never substantially enhanced the conversation — in fact it usually impedes it due to pixellation, dropped audio, and the host of other technical glitches associated with a VOIP connection over tenuous bandwidth. I’ve seen efforts to promote the technology internally at businesses, but in my experience a great deal of the in-room systems — the expensive stuff sold by Tandberg, etc. — gathers dust in the long term or is turned on for  board meetings and the like

PC to PC or device-based videotelephony is having a bit of a renaissance after a choppy decade. First, Skype’s IPO filing has put the market back on the radar — but I would hazard that most of Skype’s traffic is audio only, with video initiated in only a rare few circumstances. Then there is the iPhone 4G with a forward facing camera and Apple’s Facetime application, followed a few months later by the HTC EVO which comes preloaded with Qik, another app that takes advantage of the device’s dual cameras. Two months on the EVO and I have yet to make or receive a Qik video call and I highly doubt I ever will.

Last night two developments changed mobile teleconferencing from a dedicated/wi-fi, same-phone-to-asame-phone model to a cross platform paradigm that could finally see mobile video take off.

Tango, a Palo Alto start-up featured at GigaOm’s Mobilize conference, unveiled its iPhone and Android app which permits decent anywhere video calls over 3G and 4G as well as wifi. I downloaded it onto my Evo, asked my son to put it on his iPhone, our names and numbers were matched from our existing contact lists by Tango, and we were having a video call twenty feet from each other. “Come here Mr. Watson, I need you,” was not the historic first words, but after two months we both were using the front-facing cameras of our app phones for the first time.

Today (Oct. 5), Skype finally rolled out its Android app, but it carries some restrictions and is very underwhelming. First, it’s wifi only on Android for everyone except Verizon Wireless customers; and two: it doesn’t support video. WTF Skype? Getting a VOIP app onto a carrier network has been very taboo in the carriers eyes, who have declared full Skype on their network a “toxic” application that threatens their network security, capacity (and business model.) Eventually, as the carriers wean themselves from the landline-voice cash cow and begin to embrace the “internet of things,” Skype and other video teleconferencing players will have an easier time enabling any devices across any network. For now — don’t hold your breath.

Mobile video has much more potential, particularly in the more dynamic youth/netgen market, than desktop video teleconferencing has had for the past twenty years. Maybe Tweens will climb all over it the way they did with the Blackberry Messenger service. On the desk top and enterprise front there will be a lot of disruption, especially for the dedicated room system vendors as a host of desktop solutions ranging from the browser based TokBox, to Skype and ooVoo move upstream seeking the SMB market (see GigaOm’s case for a Skype-Cisco partnership).

For all of this movement and maneuvering, video telephony seems to be a technology in search of an application. Here are some obvious ones:

  1. Executive Search and recruiter interviews. I’ve done a few of these the past two months, both desktop, and in one case, at a local business center where I sat in a room by myself and spoke to a recruiter for an hour. The recruiter who did it via a PC told me he rarely used his dedicated system any longer and was pushing his entire firm to the desktop solution.
  2. The deaf. Sign language. Need I say more?
  3. Therapy. Think about it. You need to talk to a therapist about your eating disorder or post-partum depression or attention deficit disorder. Why do it in person when you could do it from the privacy of your PC (disclosure: I am an advisor to Abilto, a startup that delivers therapy services via video).

And of course, poker.

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