Disclosure: Cisco is a client of the author.

Cisco these days offers up a regular cadence for updates to the company’s WebEx platform, and did so again this week. It is incredible how quickly these kinds of video platforms are advancing, especially since these tools have historically been more defined by what they can’t do than by what they can accomplish. The result is a market that has developed significant peaks and valleys.  

Let’s look at some of the problems endemic to videoconferencing and the features — apparently not on anyone’s roadmap — that would make things better. 

A short history of videoconferencing

The first time I saw videoconferencing in action was as a kid at Disneyland in the 1960s; the promise was that we would all be using videophones in a few years. In a way, we now have “video phones;” smartphones offer this capability, though video calls remain the exception, not the rule.

One of the first problems researchers discovered in the 1980s was that people aren’t fans of instantly being on camera. (Picking up a phone, you don’t have to worry what you look like. But when you are on camera and see yourself on the screen, you suddenly see all kinds of appearance faux pas.) Another issue: privacy. Extensive initial trials at Apple prompted employees to turn their cameras off because they were afraid managers were secretly watching them.   

The first issue could be fixed with a 15- to 30-second “mirror” feature that lets anyone about to start a video chat to first check their appearance. While some systems do show you your appearance before you connect, its availability isn’t widely known. The other problem has been addressed by pairing cameras with lights showing they’re being used and mechanical features to disable them to assure the user’s privacy. But this is far from universal. 

A larger issue over the years has been the lack of interoperability between platforms, which can be particularly painful with dedicated equipment. Ideally, a videoconference back end should work like a phone carrier: any device should connect to any other device regardless of who made it or how it’s configured. Currently, you can get hardware that can convert between supporting Teams or Zoom (but not WebEx) or it can support WebEx (but not support Teams or Zoom).

The lack of support across multiple platforms stands out in an era when open and interoperable solutions make the most sense and it serves as a drag on the videoconferencing market. Decoupling clients from video conferencing back-ends that meet cross-vendor standards would allow for these platforms to stabilize while promoting advances on the client side where they are needed.

Making videoconferencing better

Consistency, usability, and features across clients all remain highly uneven. Just figuring out how to raise your hand on some platforms requires you to drop into a sub-menu, find your name, and then click on a hard-to-see icon. Consistency means users don’t have to struggle to figure out where features are when using different platforms or waste time learning how to use them.

These issues are better than they used to be, aided no doubt by the explosion in videoconferencing brought about by the pandemic over the past year. But companies still need to focus on simplifying and surfacing features to make the user experience better. 

The ability to pause, rewind, and review a live presentation, for instance, during a video chat seems to be an obviously needed improvement. Many users deal with this issue by sending their slides around to other participants, but this is something that video tools should include already, opening up a second window for review while the live presentation continues. Why not allow participants to easily capture images of the slides using the tool? That way, people don’t have to copy down info manually and won’t miss critical points of a presentation.

The tools should also offer the ability to edit chat comments or Q&As once posted. We all make mistakes, and when making a comment or asking a question during a presentation, typos are common.  Including a spelling and grammar checker during the posting process — and allowing the person to correct errors in real time — would help those who don’t type perfectly and clarify what’s being asked. 

Consistent placement and batch saving of support materials would also improve communication. All too often, supporting documents are sent via email, decoupling them from later editing or additions. (Many times, users aren’t even aware the support material is even available.) Video tools need to provide a consistent, easy-to-see placement of these materials, and a way to batch download them. If that download repository remained linked to the videoconference, the stored data could be deleted or updated as needed. 

On the hardware front, the move to 4K cameras means users can pan and zoom without moving a wide-angle capture camera. Today we see it utilized in auto-framing cameras (and it was something Apple showcased last week in its latest iPad Pro). Combined with pervasive naming of individuals or objects (as is often done with architectural presentations), panning and zooming would better connect those making a presentation with those watching remotely. 

Finally, the ability to attend multiple simultaneous meetings is badly needed. The number of online meetings has grown massively with the shift to remote work, and many of us often find ourselves double-booked. Artificial intelligence might make this viable as, right now, attending two meetings at once is incredibly difficult. But if a user could bring both meetings up in the same interface, toggle the sound between the two on-demand, and use automatic speech-to-text for notes, the ability to do two things at once could become do-able. (This idea takes us back to the need for clients and videoconferencing services to interoperate because if simultaneous meetings are on different platforms, attending both at once would be problematic.)

Wrapping up

Thanks mainly to the COVID-19 pandemic, videoconferencing platforms have advanced a lot in a short time. But these systems still face historical shortcomings in interoperability, client consistency, and the lack of document collaboration features. The features I’ve mentioned here are generally not available or on any road maps that could dramatically improve how people use videoconferencing to connect and collaborate. 

It continues to amaze me that after learning that phones needed to interoperate decades ago, we still haven’t applied that lesson to video. That suggests a big opportunity for someone to get this product class right and use that shift to become the top videoconferencing and collaboration vendor in the world. 

Unless we get the interoperability and consistency problems fixed before we pivot to mixed reality, the next generation of videoconferencing and collaboration tools will have the same problems. 

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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