Two different trends

Screens for entertainment are becoming bigger — we want the cinema experience, in size, resolution, and sound, at our home TV.

Instead, with the exception of dedicated activities or professions, like many in the visual arts, for example, the screens for work are getting smaller. If we think of smartphones, we can notice a trend to bigger displays. But here I’m not talking about the device but the use we give to it.

In the beginning, when the screen of the smartphones was small, we used the smartphone to help us to work — an occasional email, to take a little note. As their capacity and size have increased, we have started to use them for work and diffuse the line that separates smartphones and tablets according to their use.

Every year, tech enthusiasts are waiting for the announcement of the new iPad with the hope that it going to finally replace the use of a laptop or desktop computer.

An iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard
Photo by Ern Gan on Unsplash

Interesting, right? We want to be free from the desk, the office, and be capable to work in a little screen. Because no matter how big a smartphone or an iPad can be, their displays are smaller than a reasonable desktop computer screen.

The price of some smartphones and tablets are in the range of several desktop computers and some laptops. But what justifies the price is that we can use the smartphone or tablet for more than games and entertainment — for work and school.

But this trend was before videoconferencing became part of our lives.

Today, we are going to need bigger screens.

Video conferencing, today

Videoconferencing is now part of our life. We use it for work, for school, for entertainment, for socializing.

The truth is that videoconferencing is not very good with any of those things. Especially with remote work and distance learning. We have been trying to do what we already do in the office, school, or at a party, but at a distance, from home. Videoconferencing wasn’t built for that.

Videoconferencing was the first resource workers and educators used after the beginning of lockdown trying to keep what they were doing at the office or school but remotely at home.

Most of them were not prepared to work from home. Some of them didn’t have a computer with the characteristics to do a good videoconferencing. We use to think that the latest and highest technology is used for everyone, but in recent months the sales of webcams increased enormously. You don’t even find them in most of the stores.

Because even if a family had a computer at home, suddenly you needed more than one. Old computers and laptops in disuse became a lifesaver, but they needed a better mouse, keyboard, and of course, a webcam.

We are using videoconferencing in different devices in ways we haven’t thought about: parties, yoga or karate classes, psychotherapy, telemedicine, job interviews, proms and graduations, first-dating… and some of these ways are being used in low quality or low price smartphones.

Videoconferencing for these uses is not new, but while it was the exception before, now it’s becoming the norm.

Once we survive the first attack from lockdown and we are seeing a future wherein some way or another we need to work and study from home, there are new things to resolve.

Video conferencing, tomorrow

Videoconferencing was the best we had to replace experience. The experience of being present with others.

Almost everything else about videoconferencing is replaceable: communication, interaction, sharing… The proof is that we lived without videoconferencing and we didn’t have complaints. Remote work existed a long time ago as much as distance learning.

But the big problem with being in lockdown is emotional, not productive or efficient. And for that, videoconferencing is very good.

Nonetheless, it hasn’t been enough. For the next phase of the pandemic, we want better experiences. Videoconferencing, as we use it now, is good for one to one communication. We can even use it to have virtual rooms with five, maybe six guys on it, and go on with it. Well, unless you are on a smartphone.

One to one video conferencing is more like a video call or videophone. We can have videocalls from almost any size of screens. But as soon as the “conference” factor gets in the video, small display sizes suffer — you are not capable to see al the people in the room at the same time.

A simple one to one videoconference on screen
Photo by visuals on Unsplash

In fact, twenty years ago, the term videoconferencing was used for a service that some telecommunication companies offered. You had to go to their offices, enter a room the size for a small meeting, and wait for a connection through a complex system that allowed the use of monitors and audio to have the videoconference to someone on the other side of the earth and in similar installations.

An old videoconferencing system
Wikimedia Commons

When Skype and others started to offer a video for calls, they weren’t called “videoconferencing” because the low quality and limitations of an app running on a computer had no comparison to real videoconferencing.

You can say that today seeing everybody in the virtual room is unnecessary, and I agree with that. But in that case, it’s better if the organizer or conference sends you the video to play it when you want instead of the streaming.

To really take advantage of videoconferencing and having the experience of being with others, we need bigger screens.

Recently, I read a proposal for Christoph Janz. He is looking for a different approach about 40 attendants to videoconferencing, for example. Thinking about how a 40 people dinner with 4 tables and 10 participants each works in real life, he tries to reproduce the experience in an imaginary videoconference app.

The exercise and the outcome are interesting. You can see a representation of the “table” or “room” you are in, very similar to current video apps, but at the same time, you can see the other 3 “tables” or “rooms” in smaller sizes, like at a distance. It’s a good approach, and maybe and approach others are thinking about.

Mockup of the app described in the text
Image courtesy of Christoph Janz

But the first thing I thought when I saw the mockup of Christoph Janz was, “We are going to need bigger screens”.

We still need solutions to reproduce the “outside experience” and the “being-with-others experience”. Virtual reality is not an option because it’s expensive and only works with the latest hardware. Some kind of videoconferencing better of different than the ones we have now can be the alternative.

Forget new iPad, tablets, and laptops, for any future proposal and use we need bigger and better monitors. Prices have dropped overall, and most of the monitors can be used as a TV, computer monitor, and even mirror your smartphone.

Of course, the challenge is in both fields, software, and hardware. But if you are thinking about solutions for remote work, distance learning, or simply reproduce the “being-with-others” experience, you have to take into consideration the size of the screens the users have or may have.

If you like this, you may check out my recent book We Are Not Shakespeare in Quarantine, with ideas, practical recommendations, and reflections about being in lockdown.