When is a Webcam The Right Solution and When Should You Claim a Bad Connection?

Last Updated Sep 8, 2010 5:58 PM EDT

Remember when the Jetsons had a big old video phone screen and could check on things at home? Didn't that sound cool? Of course George and Mr. Spacely never had to worry about bandwidth, timezones or bad hair days. Is video conferencing the solution to business problems or another problem all on its own? Folks are finding ways to make them do both.

Like any technology it can be used for good (creating human connections in a disconnected world) or evil (having to be groomed and presentable at 4 in the morning for the folks in Shanghai). A recent article in the Chicago Tribune highlighted some brand new uses for webcams.
While the story showcased how people use 2-way video for such diverse purposes as guitar lessons, teaching makeup application and psychiatric counseling it also pointed out some potential challenges:

  • Human vanity will always impact adoption. In the early 60s AT&T actually invented the "picturephone"... but it never caught on. People were afraid they'd have to have their makeup done and be properly dressed at all times. Remember this was in the good old days when people actually kept decent office hours. Now that you could get a call from anywhere at any time you can bet people will be claiming a bad connection and using just the audio (which is the webcam equivalent of pretending you're losing signal on a mobile call you really don't want to take) more than anyone expected.
  • People act differently on camera than they do in real life. The point of using webcams is to put a human face to someone and help build relationships. When remote teams seldom, if ever, get together you can see the case to be made for taking what visual connections are available. Remember though, that what you see is not necessarily what you get- people often respond differently to being in front of a camera than they do live face to face. Don't believe me? Take a look at your family photo album and ask yourself how many of the people in it really smile like that. Until people get comfortable with seeing themselves and others on camera it is a really bad idea to assume that what you are seeing can be accepted at face value. Think of it this way; just because it's on TV doesn't make it true, right?
  • It won't catch on if it's a hassle. If we're learning anything at this point, it's that when people expect to be on video and it's easy to do there are more ways to use the technology than anyone really ever thought possible (psychiatric counseling? Really?). What won't work, especially if you're trying to create a trust-based team environment, is the notion that it takes a long time and a lot of patience to connect for what could have been accomplished in a 5-minute phone call, or it feels like the caller is intruding on the privacy of the other person.
I asked Julie Hillyard, cofounder of the web presentation tool Telenect about the pros and cons of presenting via webcam, since their platform does that better than most. "For some who are used to hiding behind the phone or the computer, this will make them feel vulnerable. But you can't underestimate the power of body language. Capturing facial expression, movement and eye contact help people feel so much more connected to and trusting of the person with whom they are communicating. In the case where an individual is presenting to a large group, you feel more connected both to the speaker and the content because you can see them. There's also the politeness factor- it's harder to break virtual eye-contact with a face looking at you than with a PPT slide in your face."

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photo courtesy of Hanna-Barbera/failoften.net