The Ten Deadly Sins of Mobile Video Calling – Sins 6-8: Experience
This is the second of three posts in my mini-series about mobile video calling. If you’re new, you might like to take a look at the first post before diving in here.
Having already discussed some of the technical barriers to good mobile video experiences, in this post I cover some of the more fundamental experiential problems that can turn a great call into a terrible one.
Sin 6: Lighting
Good video requires good lighting. Bad lighting means a bad call – and it’s really that simple.
Lighting is actually a problem for all video – not just mobile video. Very high end video conferencing systems will often include specifications for what colors the walls need to be in the room, and exactly what kind of lighting is needed and where in the room it needs to be placed. Sound extreme? Think about how movies are filmed and how important lighting is there.
Now think about Skype on your desktop or TV. If you’re sitting in front of your computer in your home or office, there is typically some form of lighting that stays reasonably consistent throughout the call. Perhaps the lights are on in the room; or the sun is out and you are getting light through the windows. Nevertheless, you might end up being backlit, especially in rooms lit with direct sunlight. This has a negative effect on video calling.
Now, consider the case on a mobile device. Lighting is much more variable. You might be outside – it might be dark or dusk or in a place where no lighting is available. Or, it may be midday outside, with the sun overhead. Or, you might be backlit by the rising sun. In fact, the situation might change during a call.
If you’re outside on your mobile phone, and you’re backlit by the sun, and then you turn around – you’re now front-lit. In other words, mobile video complicates lighting even further by introducing two new variables – one is movement, which can cause significant variation in lighting. The other is uncontrolled lighting, where you may be in situations where you can’t turn lights on or off.
Some of this can be solved by lighting adjustments, often provided by the camera itself. But sometimes, lighting is just bad. And there’s not much you can do about it.
Sin 7: Centering and shaking
In a mobile video call, for the other people to see you, you need to hold the phone at exactly the right distance from your face, and then hold it at exactly the right angle to capture you properly. Of course, the same problem exists in desktop or TV video calling. However, on the desktop – the PC or laptop is in a fixed position, usually on a desk, as is the camera. You’re usually in a sitting position in a chair – or on a sofa in the case of TV.
On desktops, the camera can be adjusted so that it always captures your face as long as you’re sitting in the chair at the normal distance from the camera. On a laptop, where the camera is embedded in the bezel of the display, the angle of the display can be adjusted to similar effect. In other words, the proper angle and distance of the camera to your face is maintained by a physical apparatus.
This is absolutely not the case for mobile video. In a mobile video call, you have to hold the mobile phone in your hand, and keep it at the correct distance. Maintaining this distance is not handled by a physical apparatus – it’s maintained by your arm. This makes it difficult to do correctly, and requires continuous adjustment. Indeed, many mobile video calling applications give you a full-screen self-view while the call is ringing. This gives you a chance to ‘prepare’ and place the handset at the proper distance before the call. Nonetheless, people naturally move their arms and head during a call, and as a consequence, their face will often fall out of center, giving a poor experience for the person on the other side of the call.
Indeed, the relatively small self-view, which is not the focus of the your attention during a call, is the only bit of feedback that you’re getting something wrong, and without clear feedback, you often don’t realizes that all the other person can see is the top of your head, or your ear.
Motion complicates things even further. In a typical laptop or desktop video call, you don’t move very much during a call. However, in a mobile video call, you’re much more often in motion. Indeed, people often tend to pace or move around while on mobile calls, so that moving around is the norm and not the exception. Motion will naturally cause the distance between the phone and the caller’s face to change during the call, aggravating the problem.
Like lighting, this is an experience problem that is primarily not technical.
Sin 8: Discomfort
This problem is very much related to the video shaking and centering problem, but is slightly different.
It gets pretty uncomfortable holding a phone at a fixed distance from your face for an extended period of time. Give it a try – take your mobile phone, hold it out from your face, and keep it there for a minute; five minutes; ten minutes; thirty minutes – and figure out how long you can hold it in place before you just can’t stand it anymore.
This discomfort issue can be addressed with things like mobile kickstands, but it means that mobile video calling is not going to be the thing you use to have a one hour long call with grandma. You’re still going to want to use the PC or TV for that.
However, mobile video lets you do things that you simply can’t do on the PC or TV. An obvious example is ‘see-what-I-see’, which is typically a shorter call, whose purpose is to show something to the other person. My favorite use case for this is when you go to the grocery store to buy a box of pasta for your wife, only to discover that there are a million different brands of that pasta on the shelves. With see-what-I-see, you can show her the options and discuss them in real time. This is much more useful than trying to describe what each box looks like in order to find the one she wants.
Technology can’t solve these problems in quite the same way as the first five, so we’ll have to look elsewhere for solutions. In my final post, I’ll discuss two societal problems that probably have the most fundamental effect on the way people make mobile video calls.