Monday, July 21, 2008

The 21st Century Water Cooler -- Spontaneous Video Chats

As my readers likely know, I primarily run my Berkeley-based company from my remote office in San Diego using SightSpeed -- video communications over the Internet. It really works -- I can have face to face chats with my staff at any time -- not just scheduled meetings (in fact, the vast majority -- likely 90%+ -- are spontaneous video chats). Eric Quanstrom, our VP Marketing, is also based here in San Diego and does the same thing. Eric is my guest blogger today, in a post about the "21st century water cooler."

Eric's words below:


I often refer to SightSpeed and its video chat capabilities as the “21st century water cooler” mainly because that’s the primary use-case within our own operation here at SightSpeed.
Our setup isn’t terribly unique—we have headquarters in Berkeley, California, and a clustering of folks, as I am, here in San Diego. We also have a host of contractors based all around the world. We keep our “business hours” in the Pacific Standard Time zone.

Our arrangement aside, what makes SightSpeed really useful to me as a technology is when I want to talk with someone up in Berkeley; I check their presence and initiate a quick SightSpeed call. Digitally popping my head into another’s cube, if you will. Much like you would scan for whether a co-worker is physically present in an office environment, so have we at SightSpeed learned to trust our own Presence indicators as the same sort of visual cue as to availability. More often than not, these conversations are check-ins— ad-hoc and open-ended… very much like what would happen around the water cooler of the physical office. It’s amazingly more effective than email and somewhat similar to IM… because I can see people’s status and get what I need, quickly. I generally believe this is why SightSpeed is best thought of as Video Chat (of course, SightSpeed also has IM, but I’ll leave that functionality for another post).

Video conferencing has so often gotten a bad rap, in many cases because of use-case perception. For instance, if I were to poll the average business worker or consumer (and I often do), and ask them about their negative perceptions of video conferencing, the answers would roll like a stream—high cost, involved setup of equipment, room, & technology, time spent on oft-times broken or unfamiliar equipment or balky service and, of course, the pain of organizing the whole process (heaven forbid anyone isn’t also in a fixed location with everything all set!). Then people usually use the phone or email to coordinate the actual call. Note what is implied reading between the lines: video conferencing is a fussy point-to-point solution for very specific business needs (somebody—perhaps the President of the Company?) has to be on camera.

Is this how we think of meetings in general?

Not especially. We take for granted the utility and necessity of sharing the same physical space, mainly because it is habitually easy… or so totally ingrained that we’ve all been brainwashed. I think this ease-of-use around video chat is similar to a coming wave— From very far out, you can’t really see it, but as it gathers, the rise is evident. Of course, some (most?) won’t notice anything until the wave crashes and then will spend most of their time noticing how different everything looks. This is more or less the diffusion metaphor for most technologies.

So I give you the hypothesis now that video chat is better than video conferencing, if for no other reason than how we perceive it. I also believe video chat to be better than email, and better than IM—and that’s not necessarily because I abhor typing (just look at this post!). I actually see Video Chat + IM used best interchangeably—most people are marvelous multi-taskers.

Video Chat is the next best thing to being there, simply better because you can see someone’s face. But don’t believe me, believe the countless studies that indicate nonverbal communication is highly believable and at least as important as verbal communication.


Thanks Eric!