Developing video communications applications that will sell

star_trek_communicator.pngPeople of a certain age, including myself, grew up watching sci-fi shows such as Star Trek and even earlier, Flash Gordon (remember that?) – and the idea that a portable ‘communicator’ could be carried or worn to enable communications back to base was certainly a space-age idea. The communication would be not just voice, but often video also from the distant crew member. Here we are a few decades later, and this type of communication is now possible – amazing! However, whilst we have all seized the opportunity to have a personal voice communicator with us at all times, how many have tried out the facilities now becoming more widespread of video communication?

What, then, should enterprises and operators do with video technologies to make them sell?

Video chat

There is no doubt that mobile video chat is a technically viable service – Skype, Fring, Qik and Apple’s FaceTime video applications have proved it can work well – though you notice that these services are all IP-based with a video ‘pipe’ that is not restricted to 64kbit/s as is the case with 3G mobile video calls using the 3G-324M protocol. They will work on 3G mobile devices, but will use the Internet data package or a WiFi connection rather than any specific pool of video-call minutes that the user may have.

The real question, however,  is one of economic viability – video chat as more of a consumer pitch – you are more likely to want to video call your friends or family than have a video call with a business associate. In this space, video has already had a rocky ride – here in the UK, the mobile network Three made a big fuss of video calling when they launched, but the consumers weren’t interested. It seems to have had a better reception in parts of Asia, but on the whole, video chat, widely predicted to be the killer-app for 3G mobile, has not lived up to expectations. Again, perhaps we should learn from Apple on this one – they are offering FaceTime for free! Technically viable – yes, but economic viability is more questionable if the service is considered in isolation.

Mobile video conferencing

Mobile video conferencing is, as we Brits like to say, a different kettle of fish. Conferencing is more of a business service, with businesses already using it as an alternative to a face-to-face meeting, especially where the participants are geographically dispersed. You can definitely envisage businesses paying for a service where they can extend the concept of conference calls beyond the specially equipped conference room to their mobile device.

Technically, however, there may be more challenges to overcome than a simpler point-to-point video call. Typically, in video conference call situations where multiple parties are active, you want to be able to see everyone on the call, not just the active speaker. This is normally achieved using a mosaic effect – small thumbnails for each participant and a bigger video image for the active speaker. The problem is in how you put all this information onto the small screen of a mobile phone and still make it viewable? It would be less of an issue if the mobile device was, for example, a Netbook with a 10” screen, or indeed an Apple iPad. But then that is not what most of us carry around 24x7, so it somewhat defeats the point.

On top of this, the network bandwidth constraints cannot be overlooked. A two way video call may not put such a strain on a 3G or 4G mobile network, but make this an n-way call and things get interesting…

So there are some interesting challenges ahead for us, both technically in coming up with solutions to make these services possible, and in marketing them so they are economically successful.

If you are planning a trip next week to the ITExpo shoe in Los Angeles, drop by the Aculab stand (306) and we will be happy to explain how our Prosody X and Prosody S media processing platforms can help with your voice and video needs.

(Footnote: For all you Trekkies out there, the communicator shown is actually a USB connected VoIP phone, available in the UK from

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