Why Video Phones Might Not Be The Future After All

Fifty years ago, it seemed to the makers of The Jetsons that people would be making video calls instead of phone calls. But even though computers and smartphones have the capability now, many people don't often make video calls to talk to their friends.

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Videophones were long a staple of science fiction. Today, webcams and services like Skype have made video chatting a reality. But when it comes to everyday calls with friends, people usually don't bother. NPR's Laura Sydell looks at why.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: The problem for me with videophones has always been: What if I'm having a bad-hair day? In the future, they might find a solution to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JETSONS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Calling the Jetsons, Jetsons.

GEORGE O'HANLON: (as George Jetson) Ah. It's a phone. I'll get it.

SYDELL: The Jetsons used videophones all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JETSONS")

O'HANLON: (as George Jetson) Honey, it's your friend Gloria, the cute looking one.

PENNY SINGLETON: (as Jane Jetson) Gloria, oh, dear. I can't let her see me looking like this. I've got to put on my morning mask. I'll be right there, George.

SYDELL: Nobody has got a morning mask here at Ritual Roasters, though they are drinking plenty of coffee. This h-ip cafe in San Francisco's Mission District has free Wi-Fi, and everyone is typing intently on their MacBook with a smartphone by their side. But no one is talking on a videophone. Just because you're hip, doesn't mean you're not vain. Jack Fermer(ph) says maybe he'd make some video calls if he had a lens filter.

JACK FERMER: Maybe if we did like Instagram in real time or something.

SYDELL: Or an improved camera lens.

FERMER: Like a lower F-stop. It's hard to get the right angle. And then if you can't see yourself, you don't99 know if you're having a good day or a bad day.

SYDELL: Another customer here, Allison Peck(ph), says she doesn't really even talk on the phone that much anymore.

ALLISON PECK: I prefer texting. It's faster. It's more efficient.

SYDELL: And these days, communication is about efficiency, says IDC analyst Jonathan Gaw. We text. We email. We don't even use our phones as often as we used to.

JONATHAN GAW: We're sending messages about day-to-day things like make sure you get the laundry out of the dryer because that's what most of our life is. Most of our life is rather mundane and prosaic. It's not very romantic.

SYDELL: Gaw means romantic in the broad sense - the people you love, the ones you want to call and see.

GAW: Your parents, maybe your siblings or a very close friend, the people that you really want to video-call with are probably people that wouldn't mind if you're having a bad-hair day. They've seen your bad-hair days. They don't care.

SYDELL: And there are some people who might really want to know why you're having a bad-hair day, like your grandparents. Twelve-year-old Jasper Nelson(ph), who lives in San Francisco, Skypes with his grandma Jackie Roy(ph) in South Africa every week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKYPE RECORDING)

JASPER NELSON: Hi.

JACKIE ROY: Hi. Hello.

SYDELL: If she could, Roy would probably pinch Jasper's cheeks, but she can't. So she gives him a good looking over.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKYPE RECORDING)

ROY: Jasper, how tall are you (unintelligible)? Stand up and show me.

NELSON: I'm like five-foot-six, I think.

ROY: Oh, good.

SYDELL: It was really thrilling for Roy when she got to watch one of her other grandchildren play a volleyball game over Skype.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKYPE RECORDING)

ROY: You can participate (unintelligible). I mean, what, 15,000 miles away.

SYDELL: Jasper's mom, Jennifer Roy(ph), gets her thrill watching her parents hang out with her kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKYPE RECORDING)

JENNIFER ROY: She actually see their reaction looking at their grandchildren and then notice everything. You know, it's like, oh, look at your hair and you look so this, and there's nothing like it.

SYDELL: Roy only uses video chat when she talks to her parents in South Africa. When she needs to talk to her friends or colleagues, she uses the regular phone because, well, she isn't always giving them her undivided attention.

ROY: You don't want someone to see you checking your email while you're talking to them or you're paying your phone bill.

SYDELL: And, of course, big telecoms don't seem that interested in marketing video phones because they haven't figured out how to make a lot of money from them. Despite misgivings about video phones, Skype says it did see a nearly 60 percent increase in the number of minutes people spent on them last year. Analysts say that's because they are now on so many devices. I've got at least two devices I could use for video calls and maybe I'd used them if I could borrow Jane Jetson's mask.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JETSONS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Jane, darling, don't you look lovely? How do you do it?

SYDELL: Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco

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