A video being distributed via a Web site by Vidyo is intriguing. What you see is a smartphone with images of two people involved in a video conference. The point, of course, is that this is multi-point video conferencing on a portable device.
As interesting as these videos are, they're only demonstrations of what could be if the carriers and handset maker cooperate. And there are a lot of steps here. Video does suck up bandwidth even though Vidyo's version isn't as bad at that as some applications. It also requires a support infrastructure at the carrier.
And of course, it requires the device. To use my BlackBerry Bold for such a video conference (not that the BlackBerry could, because of the processor requirements), I'd have to go stand in the office bathroom, which is where the big mirror is located, and talk there, since the camera on my device is on the back. Of course, there's already talk from some makers of putting an additional camera optimized for video on the front of the camera for just such a purpose, but that hasn't happened anywhere outside of the prototype shown in Vidyo's demos.
But without the infrastructure, the best device in the world is useless. To be a practical solution, a handheld video conferencing-capable smartphone would need a high-speed network that's fast enough in both directions to support high-quality video. That starts to limit the carriers in a lot of locations. Right now, it seems, only Sprint, with its 4G and widespread 3G, and T-Mobile, which is about to announce nationwide 3.5G HSPA coverage, seems to have the wireless infrastructure in place. In fact, Sprint CEO Dan Hesse talked up video on smartphones just this week. Verizon uses HSDPA, which is pretty slow in one direction, and AT&T's claims to widespread 3G depend a lot on what you consider to be 3G.
Of course, there's always Wi-Fi, which means you can hold your video conference at Starbucks or Borders, but you can do that with your laptop computer or your netbook already. And there are always municipal Wi-Fi and WiMax, both of which are basically imaginary infrastructure in most parts of the world.
So there are major hurdles to be jumped before you can expect to be having a video conference with your colleagues while you're waiting in C-Concourse Hell in Chicago. But the technology that's being proposed by Vidyo for smartphones already exists for most other platforms. You can already get it for your desktop, laptop or netbook computers, and for conference room consoles. What's better is that Vidyo delivers multipoint conferencing. You can have a multi-party video conference with up to 50 people.
On the other hand, Vidyo's project does offer some interesting capabilities. Video conferencing is indeed better for some things than your usual multi-party phone call if only because you can see who's using the time to fall asleep or trim their toenails instead of paying attention. And doing it with a portable device really would make the ability to communicate this way more accessible.
What remains to be seen is how the carriers will price this, whether the devices are good enough and cheap enough to be useful, and whether the carriers can provide enough 3G coverage to make calls possible. But if they do, I can already picture having a meeting on the train to New York, relaxed after having avoided the TSA's efforts to see me naked, and ready to do business.