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Embrace Video

About a year ago I noticed that video had quietly crept up as high as 50%. That struck me as odd, since it was probably single digits the year prior. I decided to try pushing video adoption even further, and now find that I'm increasingly annoyed with audio-only communications. I realize now that it's time to stop hanging on to the old and embrace video.

Not long ago, video conferencing was an expensive privilege reserved for important people and important business. Video rooms were fragile, intimidating spaces, and employees knew not to squander limited resources on trivial communications. The technological landscape has changed since then, but many organizations seem unable to shake their inculcated frugality. Video is emerging everywhere, yet many continue to ignore it.

Today broadband is ubiquitous and cheap. Desktop computers, tablets, and smartphones are sold video-ready, and video apps are often free. The Millennials consider interactive video communications an entirely natural experience. Yet as I attempt to incorporate more and more video into my daily interactions, I am constantly reminded that my Generation X does not.

In a recent video call, for example, one participant could not get audio working, and another could not hold the connection. Both resorted to an audio-only connection. The conference had a 50% success rate, and I wondered if the fact that we were all UC experts on the call helped or hindered that outcome.

Familiarity with a video solution takes time. Each video application offers a unique user experience, and each requires in-app adjustments to select the desired devices and hardware. WebRTC-based solutions, the mythical cure-all, can be even more complex. A recent video call with a colleague over a WebRTC application was abandoned after five exasperating minutes of trying and failing to locate the video settings.

Technical challenges often plague attempts to invoke video communication, but beyond the technical, a bigger issue looms: Many still find the medium awkward or confusing. The discouraged plea, "Can't we just use audio?" seems to linger throughout a conference. But isn't this resistance ultimately just a form of resistance to change? Comparable to the skilled swordsman denouncing the use of rifles ...or Steve Ballmer scoffing at the $500 iPhone?

Our history is packed with examples of one disruptive technology after another displacing its predecessor through superior functionality, and simultaneously ticking off those invested in the current system. Despite the familiarity and comfort many feel with audio communication, the change to video is inevitable. Says the French poet Victor Hugo, "No army can stop an idea whose time has come."

As previously stated, video chat is second nature to many young people. What's new is that older folks are finally starting to get it. My wife has family overseas and has stayed in close contact with them -- always by phone. I encouraged her for years to use Skype or other audio technologies to minimize costs, but neither side found the experience sufficient. For various reasons, they preferred speaking into a phone rather than into a computer.

Suddenly, they converted. Her parents, her sister, and other relatives all discovered video, and she's now video chatting with them on a regular basis. They share things by holding them up, they greet anyone that walks by-- they are engaged in a way like they never could be by phone.

The sudden adoption I observed in my own family appears to be in line with larger trends. TeleGeography estimates that cross-border Skype-to-Skype voice and video traffic grew 44% in 2012, to 167 billion minutes. This increase of nearly 51 billion minutes is more than twice that achieved by all international carriers in the world, combined. Though not explicitly broken out for international, the report also suggests that over 40% of all Skype traffic is video.

While audio communications remain important-- and indeed, will always have a place-- its relative value is dwindling. Do not make the mistake of regarding audio and video simply as alternative forms of communication that will be sustained equally. Audio-only communications will become awkward and quaint, like radio dramas are alongside modern-world movies and television shows. Video simply creates more intuitive and meaningful engagement than audio can alone.

To those who remain skeptical, remember we are all subject to technological conditioning-- that is, we adopt habits to suit the technology available to us. I was always taught to take pictures sparingly, for example, because film and its processing were expensive. When I bought my first digital camera the rules changed. It became possible to give the digital camera to my then six-year-old son and set him loose. This felt strange--each blurry, mundane shot, invaded by lingering fingers, made me cringe. "That's not how you use a camera," my technological conditioning groaned. Eventually, my instincts were retrained.

Video may still feel awkward to some, but that response is rooted in technological conditioning, not something inherent about the universe. For in reality, it is audio that is strange. Humans were communicating through facial expressions, body language, and hand gestures long before the inception of spoken language. Speech has proven to be a useful tool--spurring the birth of civilizations and what not--but something essential is lost when a voice is disembodied from the speaker. Video-enhanced communications are far richer, more natural, and more intuitive.

Transitioning from audio to video is not a matter of adopting something new, but returning to something old and natural. It's time to say goodbye to audio-only communications. Make an effort, and force future calls over video. It's liberating, stimulating, and effective. Get the transition behind you so we can face the future together.

Dave Michels is a Contributing Editor and Analyst at TalkingPointz.

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