Perched atop my computer is a shiny, high-tech video camera. Through the miracles of modern technology, I can have live video chats with friends or business associates on the other side of the country or the other side of the world, without even paying long-distance phone charges. Although I could opt for an audio-only conversation or even the text-only format of email or instant messaging, there’s something about seeing another person’s face that makes communication much richer and more satisfying. Using similar technology, I’ve participated in countless videoconferences involving multiple people in each of two or more locations, using cameras mounted on large video monitors and special microphones so that we can all see and hear each other. This is all good. But there’s one thing about the current state of the art in video communication that still bothers me greatly: the inability to make eye contact with the person or people on the other end. This was never a problem on Star Trek, which was of course the source of all my technological expectations.
Look at Me When You Say That
If you have ever tried video chats or videoconferencing yourself, you undoubtedly know what I mean. If not, let me describe what’s going on. The camera that’s pointing at your face is positioned above, below, or to the side of your display. This means the angle at which you’re viewing the screen is different from the angle at which the camera (and therefore the person on the other end) sees you—an effect known as parallax. Only if you were looking directly into the camera would the viewer have the impression you’re looking into his or her eyes. As a result, while you see your friend’s image on the screen, your friend appears to be looking down (or in some direction other than right at you), and you appear the same way on your friend’s screen. You could, of course, position the camera directly in front of your own screen, but then, the camera itself would block your view of the person on the other end. [Article Continues…]