Will video become intimate?

There’s something surprisingly tragic about Apple’s latest touching, brilliant commercials for the iPhone 4’s FaceTime. At the end of each of these commercials — the first four below are vignettes about two new babies, one new hairdo, and a new set of braces — I feel a need for the people on either end to hug. But they can’t.

Now, of course, the video call only brings them closer together than a plain old telephone call could have — or an email or an SMS or (does anybody send them anymore?) a letter. That’s what makes Facetime so miraculous: it is finally almost like being there. They can almost touch. And that’s what’s tragic: they can’t.

This is to say that FaceTime is terribly intimate. And that’s what struck me, too: In an instant, the video of the people shifts from broadcasting to intimacy, from making a YouTube video millions may see to making a call for one. Is this how we’ll use video now, to connect two-at-a-time? Or will that now seem smalltime? Will we use the front-facing camera to face the world still? Will video be public still or private?

I don’t know the answers to those questions. We’ll know only when these tools get into the hands of enough people — and when developers use the camera to create new applications and when AT&T gets its act together so we can use the camera anywhere, not just on wifi.

Maybe the original video vision of Seesmic (before it became a Twitter app) comes to life: we hold video conversations. Maybe the camera only makes it easier for anonymous pervs to peddle their penises on Chatroulette. Maybe we walk away creation toward communication. Maybe we leave time-shifting for live. Maybe we invent new forms of phone sex. Maybe Leo Laporte uses them to reinvent the podcast and cable news uses them to reinvent vox pop. Or maybe nothing changes as we already have cameras everywhere; these are merely more portable.

Watch the commercials and see what visceral ping it elicits in you.

See MC Siegler breaking down the emotional appeal of the iPhone ads on TechCrunch here and here.

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    • Perry

      For a a journalist, Jarvis is really over-reaching when he says: “…something surprisingly tragic about Apple’s latest touching, brilliant commercials for the iPhone 4’s FaceTime. There is noting “tragic” here. Perhaps he is still tied to the printed word and has had not really grasped the power of images and video to stir the heart and move the soul.

  • Brian Gillespie

    So it would be less tragic if they couldn’t see each other?

  • The ads make me a bit uncomfortable and even feel a little manipulative. I can’t put my finger on why but I really don’t like them.

    Overall, I agree with Leo that FaceTime seems like a gimmick. Even with it available “everywhere” via 3G I don’t think I would ever use it.

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  • Alex

    My girlfriend lives in Slovenia, I live in Germany. We talk on Skype almost every night, as I am sure many long-distance couples do. Sometimes, if one of us is sad, or freaked out, or moved in any other way, we really want to hug each other as well – I won’t even start about more profane desires. We can’t, because there’s a screen and 800 miles between us, but at least we can see each other. It’s better than just hearing each other. So I like video telephony.

  • Video offers the potential for a connection that elicit deep emotions and just keeps us in touch with the world around us. I believe it will become more and more ubiquitous in our lives and will challenge the dominance of the printed word.

    Or, has that already happened?

  • Jeff,

    The only thing I could think of was “they’re holding the phone wrong!” ;-)

    Seriously, though, NOTHING will replace physical contact with people you love. That said, in times when geography restricts that contact, the ability to communicate and SEE each other does provide a kind of intimacy. Overall, I like it. Thanks for sharing.


  • Tim

    Only just started using Skype (so late in the day) and, it’s a personal thing – though probably like many before me, I’m glad to have let the relevance of it (and other communication/network tools) emerge as a means of communication that benefits daily life …rather than being something that one adopts quickly in response to a sales pitch. There seems to be a propensity for a kind of hands-across-the-ocean mawkishness in alot of advertisment currently and I’m not sure it’s entirely to be encouraged.

  • Jeff

    So big thoughts here. First of all, does the fact that it’s a phone make it any more intimate from skype and ichat video chat that we’ve had for years?

    Secondly, this asks the question: how can more senses be engaged by the internet?

    Thirdly this asks: how can the internet become less text-orientated for those who are not, like dyslexic people, etc.


  • The thing for me that makes FaceTime more intimate is that you are holding the picture. It’s like holding a talking photograph and I think that’s what creates the thing, the smileability, of FaceTime.

    Also the phone has always been a more intimate device than a computer. That emotion rubs off on FaceTime wonderfully rather than the PC

    I love it and cannot wait for the new iPod Touches to come with it. I think then it’ll be more mass market and we’ll see it be able to become more common place. Certainly I’ll be buying that for my kids so I can see them, not just stay in touch. They have a PC but I would never dream of setting up Skype. It’s too much effort for a short call. FaceTime feels like a phone call but you can see the smile, not just hear it.

    Sorry, rambling now…


  • I’m a great fan of your commentary Jeff (and have made my mother, a school principal watch your TEDxNYED talk), but I’m a little concerned about how US centric this post is (and the comments). 3G video calling has been available in Australia, and many other countries from what I understand, for several years, and I can only assume that’s not so in the US. I literally laughed out-loud when I saw Apple’s claim that the iphone 4’s facetalk was ‘revolutionary’ conveniently ignoring the fact that video chat on mobiles has been available for several years in countries that aren’t the US – and it hasn’t taken off.

    In 2008 I remember hearing a talk at a mobile industry event about why video calling hadn’t taken off – yes, it was expensive initially, but the price dropped quickly and video minutes were bundled in many plans. The industry research suggested (and this is from memory, wish I could find it again now) that it wasn’t a cost issue, but rather a cultural one. One suggested reason was that although we feel a bit awkward talking on a mobile in public, recording ourselves goes just too far in terms of social discomfort for most people. Secondly, while most people like the idea of seeing the person they are talking to, they don’t necessarily like the idea of being seen when they are on the phone – it adds a whole extra layer of communication to worry about (ie how you present yourself) which actually makes it an inconvenience. This makes sense – just consider how popular texts are compared to regular calls, even though they provide even less information again. That doesn’t mean that video is not useful, especially for people long distances away, but I think for most people it will not become a dominant way they use their phones. That would seem to be the case in all the other countries that have had affordable video chat for many years. I do wonder how Apple plans to avoid these issues and actually get everyone to use this function – their adverts about bringing families together are almost exactly the same as the ones I saw for 3G video chat about 5 years ago in Aus. I have to say, I think the gall of Apple to call a function that everyone else has been doing for so long ‘revolutionary’ is shockingly funny.

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  • Henrik Vendelbo

    I don’t really like how much Apple seems to be advertising. Nearly all ads seem condescending to me.
    I don’t understand your angle or Leo’s for that matter.
    I take it you don’t video skype with friends long distance. I don’t see the novelty.
    To me it’s just: Now you don’t have to carry your laptop.