Face Time: How Video Calls Are Changing Our Daily Life

By Hilmar Schmundt

From deaf people who previously had little use for mobile phones to grandparents wanting to connect with their grandchildren, video calls are changing our lives. Skype is at the forefront of the revolution, but companies including Apple, Google and Microsoft are all cashing in.

Danny Canal, a shipbuilding student in Hamburg, Germany, is deaf, but Apple's iPhone 4 has made mobile communications available to him for the first time. Zoom
Ben Behnke / DER SPIEGEL

Danny Canal, a shipbuilding student in Hamburg, Germany, is deaf, but Apple's iPhone 4 has made mobile communications available to him for the first time.

When Danny Canal starts to speak, conversations at other café tables around him fall silent. Canal, a young man in his early twenties, is doing something that looks almost like magic -- he's talking on the phone without even opening his mouth.

Canal laughs into the iPhone in his left hand, while his right hand gestures and draws shapes in the air, a ballet of hand motions. His conversation partner on the screen is doing the same, the two of them performing a pantomime pas de deux.

Canal, a shipbuilding student from Hamburg, is deaf and he's currently experiencing a revelation. Since he communicates with his friends mostly in sign language, until recently he didn't have much use for mobile phones, unless it was for sending text messages.

With the introduction of Apple's iPhone 4, a new era began for Canal. The new phone has a camera on the front side, above the screen, a set-up which allows him to make video calls even when his is away from his computer.

"Sign language is my mother tongue and German is my first foreign language," Canal explains, drawing each word in the air. "Incidentally, you can talk roughly twice as fast with signs as with spoken language!"

The deaf community, numbering 80,000, makes up only a small minority in Germany, but it may well be on the cutting edge for wider society. Video conversations held over computers and now mobile phones have become a part of daily life, transforming the Internet into a network that draws people closer.

The free Internet video service Skype alone has more than a half-billion registered users -- comparable with the social network Facebook. Large corporations such as Apple, Microsoft and Google are all vying for customers for their video services. Then there are professional videoconferencing systems made by companies such as Tandberg and Vidyo.

The problem is that most of these services are not yet compatible, nor is it possible to make calls from one system to another. An analogous situation would be if mobile phone providers limited their customers to calling only other users of the same provider. Cell phone companies also attempt to block video services, to avoid overtaxing their mobile networks and to keep these troublesome low-cost competitors at bay.

A Virtual Language School

"Bonjour Monsieur, shall we start the lesson right away?" Iyanatou Houma asks and sits up straighter on her sofa. Outside, it's a balmy 27 degrees Celsius (81 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade. Madame Houma teaches French to students all over the world from her home in Dakar, conducting lessons over Skype. The work brings in an additional couple hundred euros each month, a large sum in Senegal.

"I see myself as a social entrepreneur," says Tobias Lorenz, the go-between who set up Iyanatou Houma's virtual side job. Like Houma, Lorenz wears a headset, the global uniform of video calling professionals, as he waves into the camera from his office in cold, rainy Hamburg.

Lorenz is 29 and just completed a doctorate in philosophy. "I'm an avowed globetrotter," he says. "I got the idea for an Internet language school in South America. I thought, these people need every cent -- and they have so much to give." His company, Glovico, organizes around 300 language lessons each month, each at a price of about €7 ($10) per hour, and Lorenz plans to increase that amount tenfold by the end of the year. The job also serves to satisfy his wanderlust, without ever requiring him to physically leave his office.

Even the most skeptical are starting to recognize the magic of video interactions. Grandparents play with faraway grandchildren; divorced fathers do homework with kids who live with their mothers; long-distance couples check in before they go to bed, read to each other or fall asleep with their laptops next to them on the bed.

Video calling offers a certain romantic magic. There's no location too far for a neighborly chat, no country too distant for a smile. And in the future, reality may look even more like science fiction -- scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich are at work on 3D videoconferencing, which would make possible virtual encounters like those shown on the holodeck of Star Trek's Spaceship Enterprise.

The Skype Breakthrough

Some predicted a bright future for video telephones as far back as over 70 years ago. In 1936, the German postal system set up public "viewing telephones," through which users could wave to each other between the cities of Berlin and Leipzig, for a price of three reichsmarks for three minutes. A series of other attempts followed, but all failed. German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom introduced its T-View 100 videophone in 1997, but it failed to reach a wide audience, in large part because costs were much too high.

When a breakthrough finally came, it came from an unexpected place: Estonia, where Scandinavian entrepreneurs hired three Estonian software designers in 2003 to program Skype. Their Internet telephone concept proved brilliant: All users also transmit others' conversations through their computers, a method which made it possible to reduce costs to virtually nothing. "If the Russian military occupation had one good aspect, it was that we learned how to make something with very little," says Sten Tamkivi, head of Skype's original unit.

This low-cost software from the Baltics spread quickly because it suddenly made international calling between computers free. The company charges a small fee only for connections to conventional telephones. Skype first began offering video calling in late 2005. The company is planning an initial public offering for later this year.

From its start in the private sphere, Skype has expanded to corporate clients. American company Genworth, for example, saves around $1 million each year just in travel costs by using videoconferencing. Still, Skype benefits primarily private individuals and small businesses.

"Hello my friend," Veda Ravishangar says in English. The guru is sitting, half-naked, in front of his laptop, holy symbols drawn on his face. From distant Bangalore, India, where the weather is tropical and humid, the 37-year-old offers yoga lessons over Skype. "I will help for happy mind and balance mind and super mind," Ravishangar says. Who could refuse such an offer?

"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" was the joke back when the written word, often authored anonymously, still ruled the Web. Today, though, the motto of services like Facebook is: "Real people meeting real people." It's an approach also known as "hyperpersonal." It's not data that counts, but people; not text, but gestures.

Online Psychotherapy for China

This new Internet that draws people closer has won over even hardened technophobes. As Elise Snyder puts it, "Most psychoanalysts are technophobes." From her location in New York, she smiles directly into the camera, unlike beginners, who tend to stare straight at the screen.

Snyder enjoys creating provocation and she achieved a certain degree of fame in 1965, when she married her own therapist, Victor Rosen, then president of the American Psychoanalytic Association. Now she's stirring things up again.

"I am a techie. I have a very personal relationship with my Mac," Snyder says. She's an elegant 76-year-old with long, white hair, but her animated manner makes her seem 20 years younger. Snyder is currently establishing a large following in China using video chatting. She has virtually trained more than 40 therapists and also performs analysis over Skype. "During treatment, they lie on the couch with the screen behind them," she explains. "It's better than nothing and there simply aren't enough psychoanalysts in China."

The current euphoria can also lead people to overestimate technology. An American court case, Baker vs. Baker, caused a stir over the summer when the judge granted a divorced father three visitations of an hour or more per week with his children -- over Skype.

The new Internet model that brings people closer, it seems, can also drive them further apart. "I've even heard of people attending funerals over Skype," relates Henning Schulzrinne. An Internet phone pioneer, he used the technology as early as 1992 and now teaches at Columbia University in New York.

Schulzrinne, 49, looks a bit tired. He's traveling at the moment and a bare hotel room is visible behind him on the screen. He wishes there were such a thing as Skype etiquette. "The requirement to conduct video calls can cause peer pressure, especially in the business world," he says. In other words, anyone who declines to participate by video is believed to have something to hide. "But do I really want to see how inattentive my conversation partner is?" Schulzrinne says. "Sometimes video is just a distraction."

Perhaps this is just one more thing that will soon be available over Skype, along with gurus, grandparents and psychoanalysts: teachers of video chat etiquette.

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