SAN FRANCISCO — It’s a sparkling morning in the South of Market neighborhood, the city’s tech ghetto. But at Global IP Solutions, the light outside Niklas Enbom’s office is shading toward an evening blue.
Enbom is on a video chat to Global IP Solutions’ San Francisco headquarters from Sweden, where it is nine hours later and dusk is fast approaching. The company, which typically uses its acronym GIPS, provides the underlying video and audio technology for the newly released version of Yahoo Messenger video chat, the service the Swedish executive is using to connect from Stockholm. GIPS also provides the audio technology for Google’s competing service within Google Talk.
Enbom, GIPS’s vice president for software development, is saying that a $70 webcam connected to virtually any PC or Mac built in the last few years with a broadband Internet connection will produce a high-quality video chat experience, even to countries that lack the robust telecom infrastructure of the United States.
“A standard PC can do this in real time, with good quality,” Enbom says over the video link.
Even from Sweden, his lips move in almost perfect synchronization with his words, and the audio quality is comparable to a landline telephone connection. The video is good enough to notice that it’s around sunset in Stockholm, where a large part of GIPS’s engineers are based.
In short, the technology is good enough that you start to forget about the technology and concentrate on the conversation.
For decades, ever since Dick Tracy made calls through the video screen on his wristwatch, video chat has been a personal technology everybody could imagine using, but that — for an array of technology, standardization and sociological reasons — few have actually used. A survey this spring by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that only about 20 percent of adult U.S. Internet users have participated in a video chat.
Video chat “is this thing that’s always in the future,” said Andrew Lipsman, director of industry analysis at comScore, a marketing research company that tracks many aspects of the online audience.
But following a decade of hard work on the difficult software challenge of producing a good-quality video and voice connection over the Internet, GIPS says that future has finally arrived.
In many ways, GIPS officials said, audio was the bigger technical challenge. Engineers had to design software to overcome microphone echoes and to accommodate different sound levels from different makes of microphones. They even introduced “comfort noise” — low levels of background hiss when no one is speaking that subconsciously reassure users they are still connected.
Anybody with a PC or Mac that has at least 1 gigabyte of memory and a DSL or faster Internet connection has the processing power and bandwidth to have a high-quality video chat through its technology, GIPS says. Both Google and Yahoo allow anyone with a Gmail or Yahoo mail account to download software to make free video chat calls.
As Americans become more mobile, video chat would seem to fill a need, alongside cell phone texting, Facebook status-casting and the other personal communication tools that have recently joined the telephone.
With more computers being shipped with built-in webcams, video chat may be close to that critical mass that will cause it to mushroom in popularity, just as online video did when enough users had broadband Internet connections, Lipsman said.
GIPS says its technology, which compresses and limits the number of bytes it needs to send through the Internet’s pipes to produce a quality video and audio connection, will speed that transformation.
Technology is only part of why it hasn’t happened yet, Internet experts say. Frustrating standardization issues remain: Someone on Yahoo Messenger can’t video chat with someone on Google Talk or other services because there are no common standards that allow various services to connect to one another. Imagine if Verizon mobile phone users couldn’t call people on the networks of AT&T, Sprint or T-Mobile.
Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C., said there are also social reasons why video chat has not been embraced.
In many daily interactions, people don’t want the level of intimacy required by a video chat, Rainie said.
“It is more complicated than an instant message, where you can just dash it off and do it in the midst of doing other things,” Rainie said over the phone from Washington. “With a webcam exchange, you can’t be multi-tasking, or even thinking about it. With a phone call — as I’m talking to you right now, I’m looking at my screen. And if I felt like it, I could be browsing my e-mail, or I could be filing my nails, or tying my shoe, and you wouldn’t be bugged that I wasn’t making eye contact.
“What some people tell us is that what they like with electronic communication is that they can apportion their attention without suffering in any great social way.”
Despite those issues, Yahoo says its video chat traffic is up since it launched its latest version of Messenger with the GIPS technology on Aug. 24. Yahoo says people in video conversations through its Messenger service now spend double the time per call as people on audio-only calls, though a spokesman declined to say just how much time that is.
“We’re extremely pleased,” said spokesman Jason Khoury. “We’re extremely happy with the service (GIPS) has produced, and we’re really happy with the engagement” of users.
WHAT YOU NEED TO VIDEO CHAT
GIPS says you don’t need an expensive webcam or a high-powered computer for a high-quality video chat. The company recommends the Logitech QuickCam Pro 9000, which includes a microphone and retails for about $70 to $100. The company says any PC or Mac with more than 1 gigabyte of memory should have the processing power to support a good video chat experience.