Video Communication: Not seeing eye-to-eye

January 26th, 2011 § 1 comment

To me, the biggest technical hurdle that video calling has to overcome is one of eye contact. It’s hard to ignore the fact that when you are video chatting with someone that they are perpetually looking down, as if they are staring at your breasts. This is because most cameras are placed directly above the monitor and each person is looking at their monitor instead of the camera. Nobody like to engage in a conversation where the other person refuses to make eye contact and I suspect this is one of the main reasons that there is not a large consumer demand for video phones. People have tried video chats and while it’s neat few people find it to be far superior than a voice call.

I believe that one of the reasons facetime for the iPhone 4 is so compelling the first time you use it is because it comes much closer to an actual face-to-face conversation though this has more to do with the small screen size than anything else.

I was reminded of this when I found an article about the clever technique that Errol Morris uses to get his interview subject to look directly into the camera while also maintaining eye contact with them. As you can see from this clip it’s a far more compelling interview because of it.

The technique is actually pretty simple. Basically he uses the same two-way mirror technique that you see in teleprompters but instead of showing text that a news commentator is supposed to read he shows an image of himself. He then repeats the process so that he can look into the eyes of his subject at the same time.

Errol Morris Interrotron

Errol Morris (red) using his Interrotron to interview a subject (blue)

Obviously this is far too cumbersome a system for us to use in our homes never mind a mobile phone. Yet I think the compelling nature of Errel Morris’ interviews proves that seeing eye-to-eye is the missing keystone in video communication. After all when people try to imagine what video calling will be like in the future the subject are never portrayed looking at your naval.

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