Not so many years ago, technology industry commentators touted VoiP as the ultimate communication tool of the future, with predictions that video messaging would become the norm.
Just as, over one hundred years ago, the telephone call replaced the telegraph message the video call was all set to do the same to the telephone call. The video call would become ubiquitous and we'd all be happily sharing our "bad hair days" with friends, family, work colleagues and strangers.
Fast forward to today and it's clear that video messaging hasn't experienced the growth and take up that was originally forecast - it's a long way from being our first choice when it comes to communicating. Even recent improvements in both video communication technology and the number of available services have failed to significantly impact on the popularity of video calls. So is video calling just another one of those "cool" gimmicky features that we use once or twice and then forget about, or is its day still to come?
Skype, now owned by Microsoft, was at the forefront of video calling. Launched ten years ago Skype has become synonymous with video calling for many, to the extent that "Skype" is now widely used as a verb. It boasts over 280 million monthly active users and in March this year hit 2 billion minutes in a day. According to Skype's blog, that's enough time to travel to the moon and back over 225 thousand times, walk around Earth more than 845 times or travel to Mars more than 5,400 times.
There are a number of contenders to Skype's throne, including competing services like Tango (which now boasts more than 100 million users), Google Hangouts, Blackberry's BBM, Viber and Apple's FaceTime. FaceTime uses a camera on the iPhone to connect with others on their phones, iPads or Mac computers. The application was originally available for use only when both users are connected to Wi-Fi, but, with recent changes to Apple's mobile operating system - it can be used on mobile networks.
Just because video calling isn't mainstream doesn't mean that it isn't valuable. There's no doubt that video calling can bring great benefit to our family, social and business lives. It's a great way of bringing us closer to the people that we care most about, especially those that we see infrequently because the distances between us are just too great. There are lots of uplifting stories around of how video calls have helped people, who can't be together, share important events - for example, serving soldiers who can't be physically present for the birth of their children can share and feel part of the experience through live video. According to Skype, Prince Harry used Skype to speak to the Queen and the rest of his family while on duty in Afghanistan during the Christmas holidays. A recent survey also showed that 26% of parents have used video communication methods like Skype and FaceTime to read their children a bedtime story and over half of British pet owners have admitted to Skyping their pets whilst travelling!
Video calls have gained momentum in the business environment, particularly as more and more people work remotely from home. Beyond our offices and homes, video communication is also being more widely used in our classrooms and hospitals. Schools are using it to aid foreign language learning and to gain a better understanding of other countries and cultures. They are setting up video exchanges with schools around the world so that students can have conversations with people who are native to the language - it's not as much fun as an exchange trip but a more cost effective alternative. Teachers are also using it to keep in touch with students who may be out of school for extended periods due to illness. This not only has educational benefits but importantly also lets them keep in touch with their class mates.
Logging in and having an online video chat with a doctor is becoming ever more common in the United States and has helped reduce the number of missed appointments. In the UK too, the NHS is looking more closely at its potential as a way of speeding up diagnosis and saving money without compromising patient safety and confidentiality. Patients in rural areas or those with disabilities could use video calls to talk to their GP 'face-to-face' without having to leave their own home. Medical professionals are also using video calls to share specialist medical expertise and provide training to colleagues in other countries. It's even been used in the operating theatre although I'm not sure how much confidence that would instil in the patient!
A quick Google search reveals a vast range of alternative and unusual uses for video calls. Fabien Cousteau, grandson of the famed underwater explorer, Jacque Cousteau, called classrooms from his lab beneath the sea using Skype. Skype has also recently been used by the UN Security Council's investigative committee gathering information about war crimes from Syrian refugees. The team of 20 investigators have not been allowed into Syria but were able to gather evidence using video calls.
Of course, there's also a darker, seedier side to video calls particularly when it comes to the exploitation of younger and more vulnerable people. This applies to many internet related activities and with video calls, the positive far outweighs the negative.
So just what is stopping the video call from becoming our key mode of communication? It's not the hardware - cameras and screens in smartphones and tablets have continued to improve and bandwidth isn't as big an issue as it used to be. One obvious major drawback to video calls is data usage. The majority of video calls are made via wi-fi thus avoiding network data usage - but calls made outside a wi-fi connection can pretty quickly eat up your mobile data allowance and incur additional charges. If you are on a slow connection, or there is significant variability in connection speeds between two callers, the user experience can be frustrating with fuzzy video, choppy audio and dropped calls. Then there's the matter of confidentiality - there's some ambiguity over how much Skype information Microsoft stores and how much access different global governments could potentially have (or have had) to it, particularly in light of the US National Security Agency's PRISM programme.
Minor technology and security issues aside, perhaps one of the biggest barriers to the take up of video calls is that many of us simply prefer to be heard rather than seen. Some of this may be down to purely practical reasons - you don't want your boss or your colleagues to see that you working from home in your PJ's (or even worse your onesie!). Or sheer vanity - it's much harder to avoid the close up 7 chins look on a tablet or a smartphone than on a desktop monitor. But more often than not it's because we are not always that good at listening. A video call demands a full commitment to a conversation -no multi-tasking allowed. How often are you listening to a friend or relative during a phone call whilst your attention is really elsewhere either cooking the dinner, browsing online or watching the TV?
Video calling requires more effort both to set up and to participate in. Contrast the slow take up of video calls with the meteoric growth of instant messaging which is super easy to use and doesn't demand our full attention. In January this year, WhatsApp a (real time instant messaging service) announced that it is processing 18 billion messages a day for over 300 million users. Not bad for a company that only started in 2009.
So what does the future hold for video messaging? A recent report by Juniper Research has forecast a four-fold increase in the number of users of mobile video calling services to nearly 160 million by 2017. This relatively modest growth will be aided by the arrival and development of 4G networks to handle the data traffic. In August this year, Skype revealed that it was working on 3D video calls and is searching for a way to create digital 'body doubles'. Just how long will it be before your holographic avatar can attend meetings you can't make - now there's a scary thought for the colleagues of all onesie wearers!