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. 

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