Videoconferencing Scares: What Did We Know, Anyway? Comment

3:50 pm on January 8, 2016

veconYou MAY HAVE BEEN ON THE PHONE WITH THE CHIEF executive of a prosperous business, not knowing that he or she was crawling around on the floor, wearing only underwear, searching for an escaped hamster. In fact, you may have been that chief executive. Many of us who work from home have a more relaxed work-style than our corporate cousins.

But even if we wear formal attire and banish the family pets from our offices, there are still times when we don’t want people to see what we’re doing. The Internet has the potential to ruin my workstyle. (My wife says it’s already ruined my lifestyle by keeping me up too late at night, but that’s another issue.)

The problem is that videoconferencing will soon become too easy and inexpensive to ignore, says Phil Unger of Suddenly, we have relatively cheap multimedia computers, $200 high-speed modems, $20-a-month unlimited Internet access, and free videoconferencing software that can plug into our almost-free Web browser. Within a few Internet years–which are like dog years, only faster–the prices will fall even further.

All of these seemingly beneficial developments, taken together, will have the sinister effect of forcing me to behave while at my desk. Someday soon–consider this an alert to the Environmental Protection Agency–I may even have to clean my office.

Videophones have been tomorrow’s technology ever since the New York World’s Fair of 1939. Despite the gee-whiz appeal of being able to see Aunt Tootie at the other end of a telephone connection, videophones have never really caught on. The clearest sign of their moribund status: They’ve yet to be embraced by the telephone sex industry, despite the obviously lucrative potential.

Videophones are too expensive, and they require the person at the other end to have one. On the other hand, millions of households and corporate cubicles now have computers connected to the Internet. From a technical standpoint, it will soon be relatively trivial to convert those computers into videophones.

The greater obstacle to computer-based video– and the potential salvation of those of us who occasionally work in our underwear–is bandwidth, the capacity of regular phone lines to handle the torrent of bits needed to produce a video image.

Whoever said a picture is worth a thousand words did not anticipate the demands of digital video. Measured in terms of digital bits and the amount of space those bits take up in the computer pipeline, a picture is the equivalent of at least 10,000 words. A video segment, which can consist of hundreds or even thousands of pictures displayed in rapid sequence, puts phenomenal demands on both the incoming data pipe (typically the phone line) and the computer’s ability to display the images.

Put another way, it takes a digital fire hose to pump data fast enough to produce television-quality video, and most of us are still using the equivalent of garden hoses.

Another factor is the pump itself. The most common pump today is a modem that handles 14,400 bits per second. At that speed, video is broken down into a choppy display of still images. With a modem capable of pumping 28,800 bits per second, images are slightly better. But to truly see customers the way we imagine, users will have to install ISDN phone lines, which pump data at 64,000 bits a second per channel with two channels running.

We’re hearing a lot today about cable modems, special pumps that attach to the fat, black coaxial wires that bring cable television into our homes. They will start showing up in volume next year, and can carry millions of bits per second-in theory. In practice, the actual speed will depend on how many of your neighbors are using the cable system at the same time.

The good news is.that we have some time yet to develop plausible excuses, or an agreement on etiquette, for not switching on the videocameras that will inevitably be built into our personal computers.

In the meantime, I’m also placing high hopes on the development of software avatars, the computer-generated images that will be our stand-ins in many online environments. If I’m having a particularly bad hair day, I might flip the switch and let my Mel Gibson Hunk[TM] avatar answer my video calls. If my video caller-ID service tells me it is a video sales call, click! I load my Mike Tyson in a Bad Mood[TM] avatar.

Best of all, perhaps someone will create a Martha Stewart Perfect Home Office[TM] avatar, which will allow me to get back to chasing that darned hamster.

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