Science opinions

If you had almost two hours to kill last week—like I did—you may have sat down in front of your computer with a coffee and watched the full-length iPhone 4 keynote address.

Of all the “revolutionary” iPhone 4 advancements Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, announced during his speech, the one that seemed to garner the most applause from the audience was the inclusion of the front-facing camera — enabling iPhone owners to engage in video-chat.

Video chat on a mobile phone! We should all be jumping up and down for joy, shouldn’t we? Not so fast, historically video-chat has had a few problems.

Attention span
When I’m talking to you on the phone, you might have, in my estimation, 50 per cent of my attention. Odds are I’m also checking my email, playing with an elastic band and twirling a pen. The reason I can get away with this is because the person on the other end of the phone has the impression that I am giving them my full attention and I think I have theirs — which I probably don’t.

Video chatting takes away this illusion and either forces me to focus entirely on the person I’m talking to or demonstrate to them the full extent of my undiagnosed adult-onset attention deficit disorder, neither of which is an exciting prospect.

Eye contact
When talking to someone face-to-face, eye contact is important. It lets you know that they are paying attention to you and their body language helps you understand what they are saying.

The problem with most video-chatting hardware, such as built-in webcams and the front-facing camera on the iPhone 4, is that the camera is above the screen.

As anyone who has experienced a program like Google chat’s video function can tell you, your natural instinct is to look at the face of the person you are talking to. But by looking at their image on the screen, to the person you are talking to, it appears that you are looking down since you are not looking into the camera.

If you look into the camera you cannot see the person you are chatting to, defeating the entire purpose of video-chatting. It can be surprisingly awkward.

Some hardware manufacturers have tried to get around this problem by installing webcams behind the computer’s screen, but these setups are typically expensive and very specialized.

Having not experience the new video-chat function on the new iPhone, I can’t say whether or not the relatively small distance between the screen and camera will solve this problem.

The only thing that I can say is that I have had the option to video chat with any of my Gmail contacts for years, and I can count on one hand the number of times I have taken this opportunity. I suspect that when I upgrade to an iPhone 4, the video-chat function will receive a similar amount of use.