10 Reasons We Don’t Use Video Chat (and how to fix some of them)

This article “Why Don’t We Video Chat More Often?” really made me think… “Ten years ago if someone had told you that in 2011 everyone would have a webcam in their home or in their pocket, and that the cost of video chat was going to be zero, how many of us would have predicted that people still wouldn’t use it?“. Powerfully true. Despite web cams being embedded everywhere, we just don’t video chat the way Star Trek, Back to the Future, and all the other futuristic films of the past thought we would. This has been on my mind for 2 days now, so here’s what I came up with…

1 – Web cams make us look ugly because of lens distortion and this creates a “Hey! That’s not what I look like!” effect.

Cell phone cameras, and web cam lenses are always wide angle lenses. On one hand they capture much more of what’s in front of them but the downside is they add a bubble like distortion to the image. Telephoto lenses, on the other hand, show images without distortion but are way too “zoomed in” and compress near and far objects giving a shallow dept of field (subject is crisp, background is blurred) meaning it has to be focused just right or else the subject will be blurry.

Take a look at this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0JOtBtceL8 or the screenshots below. It shows the same scene shot with both lenses so you can see the difference.

(If you’ve always wondered why low budget films, even those shot in HD, don’t quiet look right it’s because the cinematographer or director used wide angle lenses throughout the whole thing, so everything’s in focus and the background becomes distracting, whereas Hollywood films narrow the focus on the subject.)

So why don’t laptop web cams and iphone cams use telephoto lenses? 2 Reasons. Number 1, they’re more expensive and more bulky than wide angle lenses. Number 2, they have a much more shallow depth of field so you either have to hold it the perfect distance away from your face and not move or make one that constantly auto re-focuses, which would get expensive.

So until someone creates a cheap hybrid lens to take care of this problem we’re stuck with wide angle lenses in our cell phones and web cams.

Fix: Wait until hybrid lens technology becomes smaller and cheaper /or/ use software to try to remove the distortion in real time.


2 – We don’t like seeing the faces of our loved ones distorted so we’d rather chat with them in real life than via video chat.

Again, the problem here lies within the camera lenses themselves. Some web cams and video conferencing systems use the more expensive cameras which is why they look great, but you’ll notice that those cameras are much bulkier and not practical to stuff in an iphone.


3 – Most web cams look like shit.

Talking to a blurry, grainy, image with incorrect color balancing isn’t fun. Now there have been a lot of advances in lenses but they’re a bit more expensive. Also, sometimes it’s not the cameras fault, if your room is dark or there’s a window behind you, there isn’t a camera in the world that’ll fix bad lighting.

Fix: Get a good webcam. If you want a good logitech camera, it’ll cost you $80+ bucks. But you won’t spend it. Why? Because you don’t video chat a lot anyway…


4 – The room we’re in looks like shit.

Self-explanatory.

Fix: Clean up your room /or/ use software to remove the background. It’s actually possible to do this without a green screen. If you create software that does the following: before video chatting, the camera needs to take a picture of the background without you or the chair you’re sitting in. Make sure nothing in the background is moving. Make sure you do NOT move the camera even slightly. After the snapshot you can start video chatting and the camera software will compare the snapshot of the background with the current image and subtract everything that was in the original snapshot (so the background (your messy room) will be removed completely but you’ll stay). You can even add your own background, perhaps a tropical island? The downside is, if you accidentally hit the camera or it moves the background removal will break. This is very possible, in fact many years ago, a PS2 Eye Toy game, “Puyo Pop Fever”?, used this method to tell you apart from the room. So it’s very do-able.


5 – We are insecure about our looks and imperfections

The handsome gentlemen on the left is Paul Walker. Unfortunately, no one is perfect, and he too has a “bad angle” that makes his head look hella lopsided. Everyone has facial imperfections. Very few people have symmetrical facial features. Throughout our lives we adjust and learn to ignore our own facial flaws based on what we see in the mirror (a horizontally mirrored version of our face). But when we see our face un-mirrored the little flaws stick out a lot more because we’re comparing the mirrored face with the memory of our mirrored face and the differences stand out.

Whenever you start a video chat with someone on skype, below their video feed is your video so you can see what you look like and what the camera is picking up. You would think removing your video feed from the screen would solve the problem but it won’t… your curiosity and self-consciousness won’t allow it.

Fix: Have facial recognition software subtly whiten our teeth, smooth out our skin, and remove acne and wrinkles. However, real-time video effects such as these are going to require some serious processing power, something that iphones and netbooks lack for now…


6 – Even if we look good, we’re so used to seeing our face horizontally reversed (from looking in the mirror) that when web cams show our face correctly it creeps us out because we immediately notice the differences.

Even if we are happy with the way we look… everyone’s face is asymmetrical in some form. The right side is never a perfect mirror of the left. However, years and years of looking in the mirror has made our mind “used to” the mirror version, so when we see the real “un-mirrored” version, like the webcam shows us, it surprises us.

Fix: Mirror our video feed playback when we see it, that way we’re not creeped out by it.


7 – Our fear of being under surveillance + desire to be shown in the best possible light.

It’s no secret that we act different when we’re being watched. In fact being under camera surveillance stresses people out because they’re constantly afraid of doing something wrong and it being recorded. Add to that our obsession with wanting to be shown in the best possible light and you get a recipe for stress. Yes, even when we’re chatting with someone we know.

Fix: Higher quality lenses might fix the “surveillance” look and feel of video chatting.


8 – We can’t multi-task, web chat requires our full attention.

We multi-task when we drive (which is stupid, don’t do it), when we’re on the phone, when we’re eating, so it’s only normal for us to want to do it when we’re video chatting. Unfortunately that might offend the other party so we don’t. Even if we wanted to wash dishes or do laundry, we can’t, we’re stuck in front of the camera. Sure we can browse the web while chatting but then what’s the point of a video chat if you’re not looking at the other person and they’re not looking at you? 

Fix: Use video SMS to leave messages.


9 – There’s no voice-mail / SMS equivalent for video chats + video chat requires that both parties are fully available for the session.

I’d love to video chat with my relatives in Europe, or my best friend in Japan, but the time zone difference is too great for us to set up a video chat on skype. I wish I could just record visual voice mails and send it to them in a convenient manner without having to encode or upload or email anything.

Fix: Skype and every other messenger that does video chat should come with a free 100MB visual-voice-mail inbox with a paid 1GB version.


10 – We’re afraid of doing or saying something vulgar in front of the web cam and having a friend leak the video as revenge or using it as blackmail.

Leaked emails and IMs are bad enough (see Mark Zuckerberg IMs), leaked audio is even worse (see Christian Bale audio + Mel Gibson rant), leaked video would probably be devastating. If you’re government you could get away with it, if you’re a celebrity (Paris Hilton) a sex tape might even help your career, but for the rest of us leaked video would ruin careers and reputations for life.

So… What do you think?

8 Comments

  1. Jeyko says:

    The other thing is that most of the computer users don’t even have a webcam and aren’t willing to give money for one.

    P.S. You should add a +1 button.

  2. fatima Elmosleh says:

    there are other thing we are suffering from low speed internet !!
    and i add as jeyko where’s googles’s one !!

  3. Eva Rinaldi says:

    This is all true, but also, a closeup of someone’s head doesn’t really do much for the conversation. Voice chat is in many ways better than using text- you can hear tone and distinguish sarcasm, for example. Being able to send pics is sometimes better to illustrate a specific point or situation. Movies that allow you to see what’s going on around a person or from their eye view can tell a story. But a slow motion closeup of someone’s face, slightly out of sync from their words, doesn’t really do much to improve an interaction.

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  6. Denise De Peña says:

    How can I put up a still photo when someone calls me on WhatsApp video chat? Thanks !!!

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