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Looking Back at Mainstream Videoconferencing permanent reference link


March 1, 2010 -- Last year's biggest video calling news was financial -- Cisco acquiring Tandberg, Skype separating from eBay and Logitech purchasing LifeSize. Let's assume these are signs of maturation, that video calling is significant enough to be termed "mainstream" and look back at the predictions Joe Duran and I made in 1996. We prefaced our book,

Down the Road is our vision of the future of videoconferencing:
Chapter 13: "Barriers Breaking Down" is mostly about the current challenges to successful videoconferencing. With the technologies and developments we see on the near horizon, these challenges will be overcome, and mainstream videoconferencing will surely be a reality.
Chapter 14: "Things to Come" concludes our vision of where videoconferencing will take us, once videoconferencing is mainstream.

As often happens with technology predictions, we were too optimistic in the short term and perhaps not optimistic enough in the longer term. Let's consider more specifics.


Barriers Breaking Down emphasized networking, since inadequate connections were the biggest barrier to video calling in 1996. We grudgingly allowed that there would be many computers and other systems capable of calling over conventional dial-up telephone lines (H.324) but objected that they would be insufficient for "serious" videoconferencing. In hindsight, we should have been even harsher about the prognosis for such systems. We also hedged (too positively) about the future of ISDN and ATM. And we were too optimistic about adoption of multicasting.


However, though our video calling colleagues were skeptical, we forecast the dominance of packet switched networks for all purposes, concluding the chapter:

The other dominant trend is the explosion of the Internet and the dominance of the Internet in electronic communication. From strictly the perspective of audio and video, the Internet and packet switching are not necessarily optimal. However, the Internet and packet switched networks are the communication fabric that have and will dominate computer based communication, covering the vast majority of computer users. Assuming this fabric is adequate for current and future needs for data communication, it will be adequate for video conferencing. Because it is the communication vehicle most widely used by computer users, it is the one they will use for videoconferencing.

That chapter also forecast HDTV resolution video, attention to numerous audio improvement opportunities, and dramatically reduced hardware costs. We didn't anticipate the existence of H.264 (preliminary work began about two years later). H.264 and processor progress have enabled HD video resolution to become commonplace.


Things to Come was more speculative, with hits, misses, and "in-betweens".

  1. Microphone arrays are readily available, but not nearly as popular as I expected.
  2. Self-positioning cameras are also readily available but not especially popular. Desktop cameras ("web-cams") I buy from Logitech have face-tracking software, including options for tracking multiple faces, but I have rarely turned on those capabilities myself!
  3. Internet-based virtual worlds have become popular, both in games such as World of Warcraft and in generalized social environments such as Second Life. However, these worlds rarely seem to involve video calling in the sense we anticipated -- individuals are mostly represented by avatars.

We should have been more emphatic in using the now-popular word "telepresence" in our closing section:

With progress amongst these individual pieces, we will be able to recombine them in offices and meeting rooms where "telepresence" is normal.

"Lifesize" screens, so prevalent today, were anticipated in our calling attention to the Sun Starfire project. Multiple video displays, a distinquishing feature in Cisco's original TelePresence Meeting offering, were anticipated in our description of the British Telecom "Electronic Agora". Cisco has been particularly diligent in advocating multiple video displays, and has proposed the Telepresence Interoperability Protocol to provide interoperability of systems with multiple video and audio streams "and how these streams are positioned onto the various physical displays and speakers". Cisco's product placement in tonight's episode of 24 illustrates Cisco's approach.


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