September 12, 2013
Skype Adding 3D, But 2D Eye Contact Still Remains An Issue
Recently, Microsoft confirmed via the BBC that it was working on technology that could enable 3D video calls. This technology is reportedly under development to mark Skype’s 10th anniversary.
Earlier this year, the Voice Over IP service, which Microsoft acquired in 2011 for $8.5 billion, was further integrated with Microsoft’s Outlook.com web mail site. Now the company appears to be taking Skype to the third dimension. Mark Gillett, Microsoft’s corporate vice-president for Skype, told the BBC that the technology is on the way, but added that the capture devices aren’t there, at least not yet.
This could mean that while the technology is in development it also might never actually be released to the public.
“Skype’s aim is to ensure our users can connect with the people they care about the most, wherever and whenever they are,” said Ronnie Martin, Microsoft/Skype spokesperson. “We have lots of projects in our labs, many are experimental and not all of them make it into products. We have nothing to announce about 3D availability at this time.”
The question becomes why Microsoft would be interested in going this direction given that 3D has pretty much fallen flat. Hollywood has backtracked on 3D as have many cable channels. But more importantly Microsoft could also be overlooking what has been a bigger problem with Skype – namely the fact that many people don’t maintain eye contact as the look into the monitor and not at the camera. The result is the so-called “Skype Gaze,” a problem that is also reportedly that is only now being addressed by independent researchers.
Because of this many have felt that while each party is chatting via video, it lacks the feel of a “real” conversation.
“Solve the eye contact problem and you have the new email,” said Steve Blum, telco analyst at Tellus Venture Associates. “No eye contact, nothing new. It’s no different from Second Life, and at least there you can look like anyone you want.”
The question becomes why this Skype gaze can’t be overcome?
“The issue is still whether the camera in a computer, and its placement, is really sufficient for eye contact in video chat,” noted Susan Schreiner, analyst at C4 Trends. Instead, “what has happened here is that with certain types of technology there are new norms or at least different norms of acceptability and what is good enough. And this is certainly the case where the ability to see anyone at all is good enough versus the ‘gee-whiz’ factor.”
While Skype, at least when it appears on TV shows and in movies, suggests that eye contact is the norm, the truth is that even those who spend time on camera regularly knows it requires training and practice to pull it off.
“Absolutely, it requires training but also a very conscious decision to be able to know where you look and how you look and how to have it appear natural,” Schreiner added. “In its way that is almost forced, but it is what we expect.”
This is because “it is harder to be on camera than most people realize” added Pund-IT’s King. “There is a skill to it, those people who are TV reading from a teleprompter have special training, and it is not a skill that is easily mastered.”
Skype gaze can thus be somewhat off putting in the context of human interaction, but it should be noted as a historical sideline that every time a new interpersonal communication technology has arisen there has been a learning curve in developing an acceptable form of cultural address.
In other words, while those talking heads on TV may know to keep eye contact most users need to learn to look at the camera while talking and at the monitor whilst listening. That could be one way to maintain the guise of eye contact. Or maybe we should just put a camera in the middle of the screen – because that would never be distracting!
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