Electronic Design

Consumer Video Chat: Hype Or Reality?

How can electronics designers capture the hearts and minds of the average consumer with video chat products? The concept of combining video and voice in two-way consumer communications devices is nothing new. For decades, there have been numerous attempts at bringing viable video telephony solutions to the market.

Resulting products have ranged from the 1980s AT&T standalone video phone with its 33.6-kbit/s analog modem to recent broadband-based models such as 8x8’s Tango, which was announced this year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Yet despite all the technology and hard work, none of them has clicked with average consumer. The reasons behind this lackluster performance are technical and behavioral.

It’s no mystery that transmitting video requires much fatter pipes, or higher bandwidth, than voice. One of the key difficulties in achieving high-quality video communication has been the lack of sufficient bandwidth to customers’ homes.

While Japan and Korea lead the world in broadband penetration and available throughput, most consumers have been limited to sub-megabit connectivity. This is particularly true for upstream network throughput, which is as important as downstream throughput in two-way video communication, due to the inherent symmetry in this application.

Another key issue has been the cost of the application. The bill of materials for building a standalone video phone has been relatively high, in line with the cost of building a high-end cellular phone. In addition, video’s lack of ubiquity has severely limited the number of people who could communicate with one another.

In addition to the technical and practical issues surrounding the home use of video communication devices in the past, there has always been a social barrier stemming primarily from privacy concerns. Most people have reservations about allowing others to “see” them in their homes. Although all devices sold have always given full control over who is permitted to establish a video call, the typical non-tech-savvy consumer never seemed to fully trust this camera-enabled gadget!

That said, during the past few years, several significant factors have helped to improve market conditions for the adoption of video telephony in the consumer space. On the technical front, new and advanced video compression standards such as H.264 are enabling high-quality, real-time video to be transmitted across the Internet—although the upstream bandwidth for residential broadband service is still quite limited in most regions of the world.

H.264 ASICs are enabling resolutions up to HD (1280 by 720 at 30p) at a 384-kbit/s average bitrate to be transmitted in real time. This is significant progress relative to some of the legacy standards, such as H.263, where a standard definition (720 by 480 at 30p) video sequence would consume 768 kbits/s to achieve real-time, good quality video communication.

Perhaps the most critical trend is the emergence of instant messaging (IM) and social networking sites, which are shaping the new paradigm for video communication by addressing several of these issues. The popularity of IM sites, most of which have video chat capability, has greatly helped to transform the ubiquity issue. Users with a computer and Internet access are only seconds away from being able to video chat through a simple application download.

As these IM applications become more popular, they’re more likely to find their way into consumers’ living rooms and onto their HDTV sets. Because of their popularity and high quality for viewing video content, HDTV sets are being increasingly targeted by IM-based video chat applications.

This creates a tremendous opportunity for consumer electronics companies as well as service providers to offer IMbased video phone functionality in game boxes, set-top boxes, and even TV sets for instant access to a large community of PC-based IM subscribers.

The service providers are especially well-positioned to take advantage of this new opportunity since they already have business models for subsidizing equipment in return for service contract commitments. If things fall into place, service providers will be able to remove a big barrier to the adoption of the technology—the cost.

A recent survey found that more than 25% of all PC-based calls made online are video calls, so the concerns surrounding video communication and the related privacy issues are starting to fade. There seems to be a behavior shift led by the members of the YouTube and Facebook generation, who seem willing to share their personal lives with the rest of the online community in the form of user-generated content.

Given all of these factors—the behavior shift, the growing ubiquity of online video, and the adoption of high-quality yet low-cost video compression technology—the era of widespread consumer video chat may have finally arrived.

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