Af­ter years of prom­ise, re­al­ity catch­ing up to sci­ence fic­tion

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Vic­tor Godinez

D AL­LAS — In a se­ries of TV ads in 1993, AT&T pitched a vi­sion of a near-fu­ture ab­so­lutely brim­ming with live video com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

From a busy mom tuck­ing her kids into bed from a video phone booth and a bare­foot ex­ec­u­tive par­tic­i­pat­ing in a busi­ness meet­ing from the beach to a stu­dent quizzing a pro­fes­sor about the his­tory of jazz from across the coun­try, nar­ra­tor Tom Sel­leck con­fi­dently promised that “You will!” soon be do­ing all those Jet­so­nian tricks.

Seven­teen years later, the technology is catch­ing up. The ques­tion now is whether any­one wants to use it.

Cell phones, video game con­soles, ho­tel meet­ing rooms and even video phone sex providers are of­fer­ing real-time video com­mu­ni­ca­tion that is far more so­phis­ti­cated than the glitchy, com­puter-bound we­b­cams of yore.

Ap­ple Inc. prob­a­bly gave video chat its biggest boost with the launch of the iPhone 4. The phone in­cludes a front-fac­ing cam­era and soft­ware called FaceTime for users to make video calls over Wi-Fi.

“I grew up dream­ing about this, and it’s real now,” a beam­ing Steve Jobs said dur­ing the un­veil­ing.

Ap­ple isn’t the only tech com­pany re­new­ing the con­ver­sa­tion over video chat.

HTC Corp. and Richardson-based Sam­sung

Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Amer­ica are also push­ing video chat-ca­pa­ble smart phones, while Mi­crosoft Corp. is tout­ing the cam­era in its up­com­ing Kinect mo­tion gam­ing ac­ces­sory for the Xbox 360 con­sole as a tool for gamers to video­con­fer­ence with one an­other on TVs.

And en­trepreneurs are com­ing up with un­ex­pected ways to use that technology.

Re­cently, an ad went up on clas­si­fied ad­ver­tis­ing web­site Craigslist look­ing for women to work at a New York “on­line in­ter­ac­tive pornog­ra­phy firm where (women) will use the iPhone 4 to video chat with po­ten­tial cus­tomers.”

Busi­nesses are get­ting the hard sell as well.

Cisco Sys­tems Inc. and Dal­las-based AT&T Inc. are pro­mot­ing a high-end sys­tem called “telep­res­ence,” which al­lows high-def­i­ni­tion video­con­fer­enc­ing.

Last month, Austin-based Life­Size Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Inc. said it had worked with LG Elec­tron­ics to de­velop an af­ford­able video­con­fer­enc­ing sys­tem that can be put on an ex­ec­u­tive’s desk or hung on a wall.

In the U.S., 40 per­cent of busi­ness pro­fes­sion­als say their com­pa­nies will de­ploy a video­con­fer­enc­ing sys­tem in the next six to 24 months, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey re­leased in Fe­bru­ary by Global IP So­lu­tions.

Long­time sci-fi dream

For all the hype, video chat is not a new technology.

It’s been a sci-fi dream for decades and a re­al­ity for years in other parts of the world, such as Ja­pan, where mo­bile phones have tra­di­tion­ally been more ad­vanced than in the U.S.

“Ev­ery 10 years, you would see kind of the same claims, that even though it’s not here now, in the next 10 years it’s re­ally go­ing to take off,” said Robert Kraut, a pro­fes­sor in the Hu­man-Com­puter In­ter­ac­tion In­sti­tute at Carnegie Mel­lon Uni­ver­sity. “I think the first paper I wrote about that was in 1986.”

But there are sit­u­a­tions where the technology could be pop­u­lar, ex­perts say.

Kurt Scherf, prin­ci­pal an­a­lyst with Dal­las-based mar­ket re­search firm Parks As­so­ci­ates, said a study done by his firm in March found that 20 per­cent of house­holds with broad­band In­ter­net con­nec­tions use com­puter-based we­b­cams on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

“That would be a mass-mar­ket phe­nom­e­non right there,” he said.

Scherf said the new wave of mo­bile de­vices — as well as more so­phis­ti­cated sys­tems such as telep­res­ence — could well boost video com­mu­ni­ca­tion’s pop­u­lar­ity.

Much of that could be gen­er­a­tional. Scherf said teenagers might be quick to adopt mo­bile video chat.

“Frankly, I think that’s how dat­ing may start,” he said. “Folks are get­ting to­gether and break­ing up over text mes­sages, so maybe video chat is the next phase.”

At the other end of the age spec­trum, sim­ple-to-use HD video­con­fer­enc­ing is ideal for adults who want to check on el­derly par­ents who live far away.

Busi­ness ap­pli­ca­tions

Pro­fes­sion­als could also take ad­van­tage of the new wave of video technology.

One of the buy­ers of the AT&T telep­res­ence sys­tem is ho­tel chain Mar­riott In­ter­na­tional Inc.

Mar­riott has telep­res­ence stu­dios at five of its ho­tels in the U.S. and plans to have as many as 12 glob­ally by Septem­ber.

The large HD dis­plays and lag-free trans­mis­sions make cross-coun­try meet­ings feel like a tra­di­tional, in-per­son board­room gath­er­ing.

Ed Gold­man, Mar­riott’s vice pres­i­dent of technology strat­egy, said the technology makes video­con­fer­enc­ing more nat­u­ral and com­fort­able.

Par­tic­i­pants can ba­si­cally talk to one an­other in real time.

“I can in­ter­rupt you, and you can in­ter­rupt me, which is what hap­pens in most meet­ings,” he said. “Peo­ple in­ter­act as if they were in the room to­gether us­ing this technology.”

Even though us­ing a telep­res­ence stu­dio at a Mar­riott costs $500 an hour, cus­tomer de­mand is driv­ing his com­pany’s adop­tion of the technology, Gold­man said.

“When the vol­cano is­sues hap­pened in Europe, prob­a­bly four or five com­pa­nies called and asked if our London lo­ca­tion was open,” he said.

Even the biggest pro­po­nents of video com­mu­ni­ca­tion ac­knowl­edge that most ca­sual long-dis­tance chats will re­main voice only.

But ex­perts say there is a real op­por­tu­nity for video chat — par­tic­u­larly mo­bile video com­mu­ni­ca­tions on cell phones — to take off.

When his wife is out shop­ping, Scherf said, she’ll of­ten call to ask his opin­ion on a shirt or some other item of cloth­ing.

“It would be much more use­ful if she could shoot video and show it to me,” he said.

Cisco Sys­tems and Dal­las-based AT&T are pro­mot­ing so-called telep­res­ence, a high-def­i­ni­tion video­con­fer­enc­ing sys­tem that al­lows many of the nu­ances of in-per­son con­ver­sa­tions.

Gina Fer­azzi

The HTC EVO 4G was the first of the new batch of cut­ting-edge smart phones with a front-fac­ing cam­era for video chat.

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