GIZMOS: Videoconferencing is envisioning change

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I’m used to technology, but sometimes it creeps me out. A while back, I was in a small conference room that had one of the newest small videoconferencing units crouched atop a massive monitor. I picked up the remote from the table to move it out of my way, and abruptly the unit came to life, swiveling about to stare at me. The monitor, until then comfortingly black, now had my picture on it. It was a flashback moment to the movie “2001, a Space Odyssey,” where HAL’s emotionless glass eye ponders you dispassionately from the screen.

This is the next wave of videoconferencing-the small, relatively inexpensive system that communicates via the Internet. It’s inexpensive relative to the older setups that required a room of their own, but they’re not commodities yet. Polycom, ( probably the best known of the breed, has several products that run in the $1,500 to $4,000 range. Polycom is perhaps even better known for its line of audioconferencing equipment, the ubiquitous “starfish” tabletop conference phones. And for my money, I’m nostalgic for the starfish.

Internet videoconferencing isn’t at all like cable TV. It transfers at roughly 15 frames per second, which is about what movies did back in the hand-crank days of Charlie Chaplin. People’s words reach you a fraction before their mouths start moving. Pictures are fuzzy. If you want to put a lot of people in the frame, you have to zoom out, which makes everyone even fuzzier. At some point, you can’t fit a big conference room in the frame together, so either some people don’t get seen, or you have to constantly swing the camera back and forth. You can typically pick up on only the larger bodily responses, and very little facial expression. Unless you zoom in close, it’s almost impossible to tell a thoughtful frown from an annoyed scowl. This seems to negate the single big benefit of videoconferencing, which is that you can supposedly interact more realistically with remote participants.

I’ve now seen videoconferences that featured four different locations onscreen in what is affectionately known as “Brady Bunch mode,” where each location is given a corner of the monitor, and each location has two or more participants. This shrinks the viewing area still further. You hear someone start talking, and your eye frantically scans the locations until it finds somebody whose hands are moving, so you presume they’re talking. You can’t clearly see something as small as a mouth. Some locations hang a backdrop in a room somewhere and focus the camera on that area while the participants huddle in front of it, looking for all the world like terrorists making a video. Putting so much on a screen requires the monitor to grow, and 32-inch sizes are not uncommon. Some large conference rooms could have two such monsters.

I have to admit I fail to appreciate the charm of such meetings. As a total experience, it’s a lot like holding meetings via home movies. Especially when several locations are involved, it’s much more complicated to set up a videoconference than a phone bridge. Videoconferences need IP addresses, while phone bridges need only phone numbers. On a phone call, you can do things that would be considered rude face-to-face. You can roll your eyes in frustration and nobody will pick up on it. You can mute the phone and nobody will see you do it. And the phone equipment is far cheaper. The one drawback I can see to phone conferences is that when a lot of people participate and they sound a lot alike, it can be hard to tell who’s talking, something video reveals much better.

Another benefit often touted for videoconferencing is that it allows everybody to see one another’s visual aids, such as whiteboards. But it’s as hard on video to see lines on a whiteboard as it is to see expressions. Whiteboards are much clearer in software such as Macromedia’s Breeze ( or Microsoft’s Windows Messenger ( Polycom says on its Web site that, “Our vision is to enable people to connect anytime, anyplace and with any device in a virtual experience as natural as being there.” That’s a laudable vision, but it has a ways to go from today’s videoconference experience.

Altom is a systems interaction designer for Indiana University, based at IUPUI. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at

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