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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

WebRTC applications: are we expecting too much radical innovation, too soon?

One of the recurring themes at WebRTC conferences and demo sessions is a slight air of crestfallen anticipation, when those of us who are "old hands" are shown YAVA - "Yet Another Video-chat Application" or YACC - "Yet Another Contact Centre".

I've been watching WebRTC evolve for over 3 years now, and I'm really looking forward to the "new stuff" which is going to replace the old paradigms of the "phone call" or the "videoconference". I love seeing things that are genuinely new, such as some of the emerging ideas for data sharing between browsers - WebRTC CDNs, or privacy-protectinng web searches.

But those are the exceptions. Back in the real commercial world, I keep getting shown YAVAs & YACCs rather than all the cool new toys. I want to see facial-expression reading video analysis, which automatically draws a smiley face on my caller if they're sad. I want to see my own face used as an avatar in social media, with data-channel sharing of sensor information to show if I'm warm or just embarrassed. I want infra-red CCTV of cute squirrels in Regents Park & to be able to confuse them by feeding them 3D holographic peanuts*. I want a WebRTC drone, dammit, even if I can't use it legally & don't have any applications for it!

Yes, there are some cool things starting to emerge - but most of these are applications or twists on existing ideas. Video-chat in healthcare. Video-chat for online consultations & training sessions. Video-chat in contact centres, including one-way video for Amazon Mayday. Video-chat with co-browsing of a website. Video-chat with Instagram-style filters. Video-chat with web cookies and speech analytics.

So yes, they're all video-chat. But in useful forms, often where no use of video existed before, or which required separate Skype or Hangouts sessions with minimal integration. This is all a good set of developments, yet we're too easily bored by it.

Part of the issue here is that the broader mass of web/app/enterprise developers aren't really sure how to think about communications yet. In particular, they are unlikely to both think about a new feature (embedded video/voice) AND ALSO think about using it in new ways. Ask most people about forms of communication, and you'll just hear "phone calls" or "Skype" or "Whatsapp" or "email".

I have enough trouble educating the telecoms industry that there's more to communications than a "call". The idea that the broader developer universe (focused on solving other business problems) is going to leapfrog 120 years of learned behaviour and go straight to free-form, unproven ways of setting up realtime interactions is a tall order. Especially as they also have to think about getting the WebRTC machinery working. Very few are going to go straight from uncommunicative websites/apps, to entirely new concepts with push-to-talk video or media-processed & auto-initiated audio streams with inbuilt lie-detection & realtime translation.

I think we're in danger of setting unreasonable expectations for WebRTC. All of us jaded old communications veterans, who've "been there, done that" with assorted flavours of videoconferencing, might just overlook how much value there is in many more useful and cheap forms of videoconferencing that have been tuned specifically for doctors or TV broadcasters or insurance loss-assessors.

I guess that original inventors of, or commentators on, petrol and diesel internal combustion engines must have got a bit bored by the year 1890. "Oh. It's yet another car. Only with 4 wheels this time. Whoopee". 

But then eventually the Wright Brothers showed up (and the tank-builders of WW1) and things moved on. Yet mundane petrol-powered cars were what led to Henry Ford and the dynamics of the 20th Century.

Remember, there's only a handful of easily-conceived interaction models and variables here. Forward-facing or rear-facing camera. One way or two way. One person initiates, the other accepts, two people "meet" consensually, or something random. What-you-see-is-what-you-get, or media-processed in some way. Audio, video, a mix of both. A conversation with one or both people speaking, or images/sounds of other objects or hybrids. 

You get the picture - most folk will tend to revert to the most obvious models such as two talking heads, at least initially. And there's plenty of value to be found in extending that model.

It's up to all of us to try to catalyse truly "new stuff" - either by dreaming about it and making it happen, or by highlighting cool stuff when it does appear. But let's not denigrate the bread-and-butter, especially if someone has realised it's actually a bit better as a sandwich, or as toast with Marmite on it. So YACC away, YAVA's alright in my book. Just make it a bit different and better than whatever has existed before.

*no squirrels were harmed in the writing of this blog post


D.B. said...

The technology success cycle - always over-hyped at the beginning, followed by disillusionment, then real progress and finally success that exceeds the limits of our initial expectations. Or not.

Tsahi said...

My problem is with business models that aren't changing where they should.
I am fine with talking headz solutions as long as they bring something fresh *somewhere*. Business models are one area. Another one can be embeddability, context, etc.