Futurists often talked about videophones, and the large two-way panels were commonplace in futuristic movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and TV series such as The Jetsons. It was a technology seen being used by world leaders and super villains alike in science fiction movies and was something that someday all of us might have. Instead of merely picking up a phone and talking, parties could sit – or just as likely stand – in front of a huge screen and actually see each other whilst talking.
Yet oddly enough this technology never came to be, at least as quickly as had been forecast. First, there were the technical limitations (but in fairness the aforementioned movie suggested we’d have a space station circling Earth and a base on the moon by 2001). The prototype video conferencing devices that were developed typically featured small screens that limited where you could sit or stand, and the network infrastructure just couldn’t handle voice and video. Then there were the considerations of the practicality of videophones. For home users there was the issue of whether you wanted to be seen. People tend to answer the phone – and even carry on conversations – while doing things that you might not want the other party to see.
However, for office meetings voice doesn’t always do it. There are plenty of occasions where seeing isn’t just believing, but it is necessary to get some face time – even over vast distances. And over the last few years there have been plenty of options for interactive meetings via websites and even in social networking settings such as Second Life. Webcams have also made virtual meetings a little easier, but these require a bit of know-how to get working properly. And in many cases users have been limited to smaller screens on laptops and desktop PCs.
So it is interesting that the wall-size two-way (or greater) video conferencing may actually be arriving, thanks to new convergence in home entertainment and computer technology. This week Panasonic and Skype announced the activation of Skype via Viera Cast enabled HDTVs. This allows owners of selected Panasonic Viera Cast sets to make voice and video calls with a Skype-enabled camera.
What is notable is that like many Voice over IP calls, those from Skype-to-Skype are free, while supporting conference calls with up to 24 other parties. This technology could be a great benefit to home office workers who need to take part in regular meetings and still be seen – it might also mean that those working from home will have to actually keep their office and/or living room (depending on where the TV with Skype is set up) looking respectable while dressing up for meetings as well. So much for working from home in the PJs!
And that brings us back to the earlier point. Videoconferencing has its place, but whether this will take off for every call is unlikely. Today mobile workers are just as likely to talk on their handsets whilst on the go, and videophones mean being tethered. But for meetings with colleagues at a pre-arranged time, or for special occasions with friends and family, videophones via VoIP are certainly the wave of the future, and finally it looks as if that future is actually arriving.