Steve Poltrock Ph.D., a now-retired Boeing researcher, studied human computer interaction (HCI) and online collaboration for many years. Joining us from Padua, Italy, Dr. Poltrock led us through his analysis of why adoption of video conferencing has been so slow.
A long history of false starts.
Early on, technical challenges played a role, but they were overcome so thoroughly that competing platforms and digital rights management emerged as another drag on adoption. Today, most computers, tablets, or smartphones have the capability of sending audio and video, but there are over 30 video and audio codecs resulting in many competing technologies for transmitting, encoding, encrypting, and streaming images and sound.
Finally, Dr. Poltrock shared market research showing that people like and want to use video conferencing. There seem to be clear uses cases spanning both business and family settings. And, clinical and occupational studies are finding scenarios for which video increases trust, intimacy, and productivity when compared to audio alone.
So, why in the 85 years since the technology debuted, only 19% of those who can use audio-visual communication actually do? One would be hard pressed to find a slower adoption curve in all of tech.
Dr. Poltrock hypothesized that the answer is in our psychology. Effects of the physical environment; mutual gaze, trust, and other emotions; and the importance of context were among the research areas Dr. Poltrock reviewed in the webinar.
The camera is easy. It's the "studio" that's hard.
Setting up cameras, monitors, and microphones in a conference room present numerous potential barriers to conducting meetings. The screen tends to dominate attendee attention instead of the meeting leader. The person closest to the microphone may be perceived by remote viewers as shouting. Those sitting in closest proximity to the camera appear larger than those farther away. Some companies have attempted to create systems that address these issues with the physical meeting environment. Though the expected return-on-investment would seem to make such costly systems worth considering for many global companies, adoption remains low.
We still don't have eye contact.
Using video as a communication tool is still interpreted, in most scenarios, as awkward or contrived. Looking at someone else on a screen approximates face-to-face contact. Yet, it is the fact that video conferencing is simply an imitation of more natural human interaction that seems to be the problem. Two studies described in this webinar stood out to me as very telling about why this is true. The first identified gaze disparity based on camera positioning as a persistent challenge. The other tested how a confederate was framed for on screen viewing to see if it affected the development of empathy.
Gaze disparity has a definite impact on forming trust over a video transmission. A study reported on by Milton Chen in 2002 established that when the camera is more than 8° above or is at any angle below the eye of the person being viewed, the viewer does not perceive eye contact. Perhaps even worse for most equipment scenarios, when the camera was aimed up from below, the viewer's perception was that the person being viewed was looking above their head. Chen's findings suggest an optimum positioning for video cameras that is difficult to maintain in many physical setups. For example, imagine using your smartphone to have a video call. How hard would it be for you to keep the phone positioned such that it was slightly above your eye level and pointed down? My arm and wrist are getting tired just thinking about it!
Other researchers have experimented with how the face is framed as seen by a viewer and how this may relate to developing empathy in video communications. In one such experiment, Nguyen and Canny used a confederate to test whether or not empathy developed for a colleague. Participants met with the confederate in one of three conditions: face-to-face, online video with head only framing, and online video with upper body framing. The confederate then dropped pens in proximity to the participant and the researchers tracked how many helped pick up the pens and how long it took before offering to help. Participants were almost as likely to pick up pens dropped by the Upper Body confederate as they were for the Face-to-Face confederate. For Head Only confederates, the average lag time before participants helped was more than double that for the Face-to-Face confederate. Good thing that fictional character Max Headroom didn't need to establish empathy with viewers to report the news!
Will adoption rates for using video in communications accelerate?
Many researchers continue to investigate whether people are more likely to use video conferencing in business or home contexts. Some of the same issues that seem to prevent adoption of video in office settings are just as problematic for families. Some posited that use of video-capable devices or video conferencing will take off with the Millennial generation. Teens do tend to be more willing to use it with their peers. Yet, not being able to easily and reliably perceive eye contact through video seems to be its most significant limitation. In the discussion that followed, he elaborated on this explaining that these small but powerful psychological determinants will need to be overcome. When asked directly if the market demand for today's video conferencing technologies will accelerate, Dr. Poltrock's reply was a simple, "No."
For further reading
- Wikipedia's videotelephony page contains more about the history of technologies used to transmit bidirectional audio and video and includes links to additional references for further reading on this topic.
- For more about market penetration rates, see Theirer, A., & Eskelsen, G. (2008). Media metrics: The true state of the modern media marketplace. The Progress and Freedom Foundation. In the presentation, Dr. Poltrock added information from this Pew Internet study about video calling and video chat to a chart from the Media Metrics study by the Progress and Freedom Foundation to visually depict just how far behind video conference technologies are in comparison to other household technologies.
- Download the PDF, Leveraging the Asymmetric Sensitivity of Eye Contact for Videoconferencing, to read a complete report of Milton Chen's 2002 research.
- Purchase the PDF, More than Face-to-Face: Empathy Effects of Video Framing, to read David Nguyen and John Canny's full 2009 report.
About the presenter
Steve Poltrock recently retired from The Boeing Company with 40 years of experience in research and advanced development at the interface of humans and technology. He has degrees in engineering and mathematics and a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Washington. His research focus is in Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), and he chaired the ACM Conference on CSCW in 2012. He has published more than 60 papers in the CSCW field about topics such as collaborative user interface design, innovative collaboration technology, collaborative hypermedia, and experiences deploying groupware and video conferencing systems.
About the writer
Jenny Neill has nearly 20 years of experience applying research skills to content and application design problems. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the College of Wooster and a Certificate in Software Product Management from the University of Washington. She has worked at Massachusetts General Hospital, the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington, and the internet's first legitimate online pharmacy. She focuses on information security and privacy, compliance, cloud computing, and online social marketing in her consulting practice.