James Bareham for Vox/Recode | Photo of Picturephone 1965: Bettmann/Gettyimages
It looks like we’re stuck with video chat. Is that such a bad thing?
It’s well over 100 days into the Covid-19 crisis, and I have to make a confession: I hate doing everything over video chat. I hated it at the start, and I hate it in new ways now. You’ve probably heard of “Zoom fatigue.” I’ve transcended Zoom fatigue. At this stage in the pandemic, I’m experiencing something more advanced, like that moment on a long run when you’ve fought through fatigue, tapped into your body’s store of endorphins, and also lost a toenail.
Whether I like it or not, most of my work life and social life will happen via webcam in the weeks and months to come. Despite my complaints, however, this does not have to be a bad thing.
Even after the pandemic ends, video chat will play an increasingly important role at work, for school, in health care, and in our relationships with friends and family. The pandemic not only pushed this technology into new scenarios of our daily lives but also forced people to learn how to use it. Folks that hadn’t tried Zoom, FaceTime, or Google Meet before March became power users in record time. Some of these new users have even embraced the software’s virtual backgrounds and AI-generated face-smoothing effects. (The software is extremely easy to use now compared to 15 years ago, when I first used it.) While few of us want to keep doing Zoom happy hours after the pandemic ends, more of us are comfortable using it than ever before.
“What happened with a pandemic is interesting,” Zoom’s chief product officer Odel Gal told me. “All the people that were resistant to using the technology were forced to use it.”
So what does our future of talking through screens actually look like? In an effort to answer a capricious question, I talked to Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Zoom about their post-pandemic plans for video chat. The companies all reported record numbers of new users and total usage, and they were predictably optimistic about what’s next for living in digital spaces. But much to my surprise, the companies were pretty quick to acknowledge the shortcomings of video chat.
That’s because there is no substitute that is as good as talking to people in person. In the near future, though, the next best thing might not be so bad.
Zoom fatigue, historically explained
Video chat as we know it is barely two decades old. Starting around the time Skype launched in 2003, what was once a futurist’s fantasy became a problematic reality. But the potentially transformative technology has always seemed a year or two away from being actually usable. So you might say that we’ve struggled with Zoom fatigue for quite some time, when you consider that abysmal picture quality, stuttering audio, and the general awkwardness of talking to screens have always been features of the video chat experience.
Years later, the tech’s persistent shortcomings, like how you can’t quite make eye contact with the other people on a video call, continue to feel frustrating. When most of your human interaction for months on end is happening via video chat, these annoyances become downright exhausting.
Zoom fatigue is the feeling of utter hopelessness after your ninth video call of the day, and experts say it’s brought on because the technology overtaxes your brain. Presented with a cropped, often blurry image of a human and a few milliseconds of lag throughout the conversation, your mind splits its attention between what people are saying and what’s happening on the screen, longing for nonverbal cues that just don’t cross over.
Some call it “Zoom burnout,” though the “fatigue” descriptor better encapsulates how we’re tired of video calls but have to keep doing them. Others suggest the real problem is that we’re all depressed by the state of our lives in the pandemic. Regardless, video chat has always had fundamental flaws that make it prone to creating unsatisfying experiences.
“We are constantly presented with the promise of instantaneous connection that seamlessly connects us with the people we love and the people we work with, and that’s always a fiction,” Jason Farman, a faculty associate with Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, explained. “I think we’ve seen that promise for well over 100 years.”
It was about 100 years ago that the telephone, first widely adopted as a business tool, started to become popular as a way to talk to friends. Skeptics at the time warned that phones upended the idea of social trust, since you couldn’t see who you were talking to, but Bell Labs quickly cooked up an attempt at a solution in the 1920s by accompanying a telephone call with a televised image.
Herbert Hoover, famously tested the device, placing a video call from Washington, DC, to New York in 1927, when he was secretary of commerce. The television feed only worked one way, so those in New York could see the people in Washington, but not the other way around. AT&T president Walter S. Gifford said at the time that devices like this would, eventually, “add substantially to human comfort and happiness.”
AT&T worked for decades trying to improve these devices, which were rudimentary and room-sized in their early versions. The company introduced a “two-way television phone,” dubbed the Iconophone, in 1930, and then in the ’60s, it introduced a much more advanced contraption called the Picturephone at the World’s Fair in New York. Those who tested it complained about bad picture quality and awkward controls.
Nevertheless, the Picturephone did go to market in 1970, when customers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, could sign up for the service and lease the equipment for $160 per month plus extra costs over the included 30 minutes of call time. This was extremely expensive, and AT&T discontinued the project in 1978. Though it invented several more video phones over the years, including the full-color $1,500 VideoPhone 2500, AT&T never had any major commercial successes with video calling.
A few decades later, internet-connected computers and phones transformed the whole proposition of video chat, especially after broadband speeds became the norm. And when Skype debuted in the early aughts, any laptop with wifi and a webcam became a video phone. Then in 2011, the iPhone 4 came along with a front-facing camera and the FaceTime video chat that worked on 3G networks, and millions of people could make video calls on the go. But it didn’t immediately catch on. Around that time, not even one-fifth of Americans had tried video calling online or on their phones.
While I do remember trying FaceTime when it launched, until the pandemic, I never actually wanted to video chat rather than talk on the phone or over text, especially in my personal life. I only ever remember feeling disconnected or distracted in video chats before the pandemic — and it seems I wasn’t alone in that. A group of Yale researchers recently found that we can actually understand emotions better through voice than video.
In recent years, though, videoconferencing has become essential in certain industries. Knowledge workers and those who have the luxury of working remotely have increasingly relied on the technology. The quality of video calls has also vastly improved, and it seems to be getting better as companies compete with each other to make calls feel more natural and realistic.
Google’s video chat tech now employs artificial intelligence to tune out background noise, for example, and Facebook uses an AI-powered camera in Portal, its suite of video-calling devices, to track the movement of subjects. Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s head of augmented and virtual reality, told me the company designed this feature to “keep it feeling like it’s alive as opposed to this fixed image that your brain kind of starts blurring out, which is what happens with so many video calling setups.”
Yet the fundamental flaws with the medium generally persist. Video calls typically take more work than a phone call, if only because they require an additional sense, and they don’t quite live up to the authenticity of an in-person meeting. Still, they’ve found a home in the conference room. Most of the major tech companies have now built their own video chat platforms, with the most prominent ones, like Google Meet and Microsoft Teams, aimed at business customers. And, of course, there’s Zoom, which we’re all tired of now.
Actually, video chat is good?
What comes after Zoom fatigue is what I’d call Zoom acquiescence. It’s an inevitability.
During the pandemic, we’ve all started relying on video chat technology for health care, religion, entertainment, and simply keeping up with friends. It will remain relevant in our lives going forward, especially for work. Much like those who were gobsmacked by telephones a century ago, we’re likely witnessing a transformation in communication — a leap forward with no return. The new thing is scary, imperfect, and often off-putting. We might as well make the best of it.
“We’ve been forced to use these tools for things that we otherwise never would have dreamed of, like buying and selling houses,” said Nicole Ellison, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information. “We’ll essentially come out of this with a better, more calibrated sense of what we really need to do face to face.”
We might not, for instance, need to go to the doctor’s office as often. While telemedicine has existed for years, the pandemic forced all kinds of doctor’s appointments to happen online. Some experts think there’s no reason to go back, arguing that over half of doctor’s visits don’t require an in-person meeting. Research has also shown that telemedicine is significantly more efficient than traditional in-person visits for mental health care, and these benefits could mean more people seek help.
Video calling’s most useful applications also go beyond simply allowing two people to chat with each other. Several of the experts and video chat company representatives I interviewed brought up a different use case for the tech: as an additive to otherwise limiting scenarios, like a kid’s birthday party, for example. While the pandemic has meant that parties have to happen over Zoom or FaceTime, there’s no reason we can’t include a video component as the threat of the virus subsides. Grandma and Grandpa weren’t able to make the trip? Fire up the webcam and put them on the TV when it’s time to blow out the candles.
That idea might seem a little weird, but hosting a party with a video chat component certainly sounds less weird today than it would have six months ago. If it was already evident that videoconferencing had become a mainstay of many offices, that it could be a prominent part of our social lives is a new idea to me. That explains my initial surprise when the folks from Microsoft Teams started telling me how their workplace software had taken on new roles, like social networking, in many users’ lives. In other words, the pandemic has fundamentally changed our relationship with these tools and with digital spaces generally.
“I think one of the durable things that will happen here is that video and broadcasting — not to the world, but to a small group — what’s happening in our lives actually is going to be the next generation of the social network,” Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365, said. “I’m convinced that that will be true.”
But as we’ve learned from Zoom’s periodic meltdowns, repurposing office software for our social lives is a tricky business. Part of why we have felt fatigue from video calls during the pandemic is because the technology was designed for a different purpose than having virtual happy hours or hosting graduation parties. It’s even worse if you’re using the same laptop for work calls and fun times. Little tweaks like virtual backgrounds and fun filters help liven things up, but the next generation of the social network would really benefit from some new hardware.
Tech bloggers worried about Portal when it launched because honestly, who wants to put a camera and microphone made by the privacy nightmare that is Facebook in their home? But as the pandemic has begun to change how many of us think about privacy, maybe a dedicated video phone isn’t so scary after all. The privacy concerns might just work themselves out as more people make more video calls, and companies continue to improve the technology.
Dedicated video-calling devices might finally be ready for primetime. Facebook told me that Portal sales have increased by a factor of 10 since mid-March; they were reportedly “very low” as recently as last fall. The company is also selling a $150 Portal TV, which is essentially a webcam for your living room.
Then there’s the Nest Hub Max, a smart display from Google, that recently gained the ability to host Google Duo and Google Meet group video calls. (The Amazon Echo Show is a similar device but lacks the group call feature for now.) Even Zoom is now selling hardware of its own by partnering with a company called DTEN on an “all-in-one personal collaboration device” that has multiple cameras that adapt to different rooms. The company announced the new Zoom for Home initiative earlier this week and is now taking preorders for its first device, the DTEN ME.
“It’s just the beginning,” Gal, from Zoom, told me. “But I think the idea is you’re not using your laptop all the time for communication. You are using a dedicated device that is outside of that that is kind of smarter.”
In my former life covering gadgets, I tested a lot of these devices and struggled to understand how they’d fit into most people’s everyday lives. Yet, about a week after stay-at-home orders had me trapped in my apartment, all I wanted was a better video phone machine. In the end, I got a Logitech Brio, an HD webcam that’s dead simple to use and move around the apartment. When the time comes, I can put it on top of my TV and invite my extended family to my birthday party, where they’ll be able to have more normal-seeming conversations with my wife and me and our two unhinged Chihuahuas.
Imagining a holographic future
The possibilities for hanging out in digital spaces get more exciting when you look into the very near future. Virtual hangouts are already getting pretty weird and interesting. In recent months, we’ve witnessed the explosive popularity of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a Nintendo game that lets you build your own island and explore the digital worlds built by others. There have also been a growing number of virtual events, like concerts in Fortnite.
The bright minds at Oculus hope these trends translate to virtual reality, where they’ve built a social app called Facebook Horizon. The app looks like a slightly more cartoonish version of the pixelated universe in the dystopian thriller Ready Player One and also reminds me of the time Mark Zuckerberg toured a hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico in VR using the Facebook Spaces app.
Of all the companies coming up with new ways we can talk to each other online, Facebook and Oculus might be best positioned for a radical transformation. At least that’s the impression I got from my conversation with Bosworth, the Facebook executive in charge of Portal as well as the company’s Oculus division. The future of truly science fiction-inspired, hologram-based experiences sounded much more interesting to me than talking to a grainy 2D image on a screen.
“The bottlenecks that we have to providing people the augmented reality vision that we kind of share — where we do have those holograms speaking to people and it feels like you’re seeing them face to face — those are exactly the problems that we’re tackling in my group, in AR/VR,” Boz told me. “But those are probably going to be a little bit further out, at least a couple years away.”
So it’s doubtful that we’ll be talking to holographic versions of each other in two years. But tech that offers lifelike three-dimensional images without the need for glasses or a headset does exist. Earlier this year, a Brooklyn-based startup called Looking Glass started shipping the world’s highest-resolution holographic display, which looks like a glass box and creates a dynamic image floating in space. It’s not hard to imagine using a device like this for video calls, since the light-field technology could make the image of a face look like an actual face.
Another concept for making video calls feel more like real-life interactions takes its inspiration from a window. It’s called the Square and is a camera-equipped display dreamed up by the futurists at Argodesign, a self-described “innovation firm” based in Austin, Texas.
Meant to be used at work, the Square is equipped with a shade that you’d slide up when you’re available, and coworkers could effectively drop in and chat through this virtual window. There are multiple cameras in the unit, and together they create a parallax effect that’s not quite 3D but does create some dimension in the image. Mark Rolston, the founder of Argodesign, says the company has working prototypes of the Square and seems eager for a company to start producing the device or something like it.
“We know it’s possible, and we know someone will make it,” Rolston said. “We’re not really worried about that moment, that inflection point. We’re just trying to tease the world a little bit.”
That sentiment sums up the entire history of video chat. We’ve been fielding teases since the 19th century. Each new invention comes a little bit closer to a product that really works and could bring us closer together. But even in the era of iPhones, something is still not quite right with video calls. The technology seems like it’s inherited many of the problems of early telephones but without the breakaway success.
Then again, what made early telephones so transformative? At a certain point, a critical mass of people had them, and those who had them used them — a lot. Now, a critical mass of people have video chat technology, and thanks to the pandemic, we’re using it. So bring on the holograms.
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