Video Conferencing

April 19, 2011

Chapter 9 – Communicating In Real-Time

Dr. Paul Ekman is the science consultant for the television show Lie To Me. It stars Tim Roth. Dr. Ekman teaches Mr. Roth, and the rest of the cast, how to lie convincingly.

A lot of the way to lie successfully is in your face. The way your lip curls up at the edge or your eyes wrinkle show if you are lying or not. Dr. Ekman teaches these actors how to lie by looking at their faces and talking to them. He studies the minute twitches and spasms of their facial muscles and coaches them about how to be more convincing. And he can do it over Skype’s video chat.

Dr. Ekman uses video conferencing, but almost none of the teams I spoke with use it. A study in the Harvard Business Review found that over two-thirds of the teams they sampled found video conferencing “too fuzzy to enhance the collaboration experience.”

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When Dr. Ekman coaches actors he makes the face of the person he is talking to the same size as it would be in real life. Dr. Ekman’ years of experience have shown him that we relate better when someone’s face looks like it does in real life.

When it works

Video conferencing is ideal when you need to convince one person of something difficult that takes a lot of trust. Seeing your face helps people trust you. Just watch out for the Mike Teevee problem.

Mike Teevee was one of the children in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Mike sent himself through a television signal and came out in a TV on the other side… three inches tall. Willy Wonka was only able to pull Mike back to his normal size because “fortunately children are very stretchy.”

The Mike Teevee problem is common. Take a man who is two meters tall and send his picture of him over iChat and he becomes a two-inch window. Video conferencing is very distracting, on purpose. When you really need to see someone’s face make it large on your screen and ask them to do the same.

When it doesn’t work

In the book Snow Crash, Neil Stephenson describes a piece of technology called the MetaVerse. The MetaVerse is an advanced form of chat room where people are represented by ultra realistic human forms. This chat room becomes so useful that people don’t travel much anymore. They conduct business meetings, have dates, and generally interact in this virtual reality.

The success of holding meetings in this virtual world comes down to the ability to see everyone in the room in depth and in focus. Being able to look from one person to another is the big difference between a truly useful system and the video conferencing we have today. There are advanced video conferencing systems like HP’s Halo system, but the high cost of these systems and the need for a dedicated connection makes them unusable for most companies.

In the next 10 years basic video conferencing may advance to the point that it becomes useful and cost effective. Until then it isn’t very useful for communicating with groups.

Video conferencing is about trust. When you need someone to see your face and trust you it may be helpful. Most of the time just pick up the phone or send an email.

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