Forrest Oliphant

lost in compression


I have been doing lots of video communication living abroad from my family and fellowship, and it is a challenge.

At first there was a honeymoon novelty phase, but now I feel like we are starting to get used to the rhythm of it, and annoyed by the shortcomings. It is somewhere in the uncanny valley of communication... feels a little like a face-to-face conversation, but then lag, A/V dropouts and freezes, and the lack of eye contact really drive home that this isn't natural. Have you ever tried to sing together?

Lag seriously messes with the conversational flow, especially with multiple parties experiencing different lags from each other. With casual video chatting these don't matter so much, but in a meeting where people are trying to make decisions it is a bit of a battle.

I hear myself rambling sometimes, rewording my point a few times, to fill in the lack of the normal subtle cues that all parties are on the same page. I catch myself looking at the camera "in the eye," which is really backwards.

We'll get used to it, and develop systems for explicitly communicating the subtle, subconscious things that are lost in compression. I'm noticing "sounds good to me" verbally filling in what might have been understood without words in person. Lag will decrease, A/V quality will be better, and maybe depth cameras will adjust the angle of our gaze to better approximate eye contact.

fam hangout

My daughters don't know a world without video chatting. In 2009 I was 14300km away and my first was able to communicate with me with sign language. This wouldn't have happened with just audio. My second didn't meet my folks in person for 3 months, but when she did there was immediate recognition.

Some thought-provoking writing on the video-communication-centric future we might be heading towards:

Your children will know a very different way of relating to people who are not physically present. It will change the way they work, maintain friendships, relate to family members, fall in love, and experience the world. It will change their sense of self, and self-worth. It may be a boon, or it may be harmful. Most likely, it’ll be a bit of both, because after all, it’s still about people.

-- Alex Payne (via Henri Bergius)