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The Video Call Revolution: A Demise Long Coming

End of Video call revolution?

Video chat promised to revolutionize work and communication just a few years ago. The anticipation was tangible, with the hope of an entirely new way of interacting. However, the outcome has been far from revolutionary – merely a slight enhancement of the existing video chat experience.

The significance of video-first communication skyrocketed with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. As individuals were suddenly thrust into a world of remote work, online education, and virtual family gatherings, there arose a flurry of interest in applications and platforms that pledged to inject excitement into the mundane act of sitting before a webcam.

Remember the time when video chat apps seemed ubiquitous?

Numerous companies introduced novel ways of sharing video experiences. Meta launched 50-person Messenger Rooms, aiming to foster a sense of community. Apps like Houseparty and Marco Polo gained popularity for their novel take on video messaging. Virtual event platform Hopin attempted to recreate the ambiance of in-person conferences. Mmhmm offered creative options and effects, making video calls less like peering into someone’s life. Snap Camera gained traction as an easy method to add filters to video calls. Even telecom giant Verizon ventured into video conferencing, acquiring BlueJeans for a hefty sum of around $400 million, promising to integrate it with the potential of 5G technology.

In contrast, Zoom swiftly transformed into both a verb and a household name. It branched out into an app store, an events platform spanning yoga classes to global conferences, and a suite of productivity tools with video chat at its core. The company seemed emblematic of the future – a hub for life, work, and learning. It even joined forces with Meta to integrate Zoom into the VR productivity realm of Meta’s Horizon Workrooms.

Despite these advancements, the actual experience of video chat appears more humdrum than ever before. As people gradually return to pre-pandemic gatherings (even Zoom is urging some employees to return to the office), the video chat landscape is largely dominated by tech giants, with the influx of innovative features slowing to a crawl. While this stagnation is not unique to the tech changes ushered in by the pandemic, video communication was expected to defy this trend.

Recent developments further illustrate this shift. Hopin relinquished its events and webinars sectors to RingCentral in a recent “strategic relationship.” Mmhmm’s presence endures, but it seems scarcely mentioned outside of tech circles. Houseparty, once a group video chat sensation, was acquired by Epic Games in 2019 and subsequently shuttered in 2021. Verizon recently announced the impending closure of BlueJeans. Even Snap terminated its Snap Camera offering.

What does the current landscape portray?

Zoom remains a formidable player, serving as a staple for briefings and meetings. Despite being part of a Google Meet-oriented environment at Vox Media, I regularly engage with Zoom. However, the essence of Zoom calls seems relatively unchanged from the early pandemic era, despite additional features like facial effects, avatars, and AI summaries. While Zoom attempts to diversify its portfolio beyond video chat, endeavors such as its Slack-like Team Chat and email/calendar services appear to attract limited adoption. Participation in Zoom’s virtual events platform also appears sparse.

Google Meet has undergone notable transformation. The astute rebranding from “Hangouts Meet” to “Google Meet” in April 2020 disassociated the platform from the defunct Hangouts brand. Over time, Google addressed glaring feature gaps and enhanced overall stability. Although I no longer ponder over its usage during engagement, using Google Meet doesn’t exactly evoke a sense of delight.

Microsoft remains invested in enhancing video conferencing within its Teams collaboration tool. To inject amusement into video calls, the company incorporated Snapchat’s Lenses. However, Microsoft’s substantial investment in another conventional video chat avenue seems paradoxical given its ownership of Skype.

The Future of Video Chat: A Glimmer Amidst the Gloom

Not all hope for video chat apps is lost. Apple’s upcoming macOS Sonoma introduces intriguing concepts, some of which are borrowed. The ability to position your face in a moveable bubble, magnify your presence for enhanced focus, and trigger animated reactions through gestures offers a fresh perspective. These additions, expected to span platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Cisco’s Webex, offer a new dimension. However, one might question whether animated fireworks truly represent the pinnacle of video communication enhancement.

For casual video hangouts with friends, Discord’s Activities facilitate joint activities such as gaming or shared video viewing. In the workplace, Slack’s video huddles replicate impromptu conversations reminiscent of in-person office interactions.

Nonetheless, the era of boundless excitement over video chat apps appears to have concluded. While Zoom, Google Meet, and Teams excel in their roles, they have transformed into utilitarian tools, devoid of the initial fervor. Video’s projection as the harbinger of the future now seems misplaced. Rather than revolutionizing communication, it has simply become another instrument akin to picking up the phone.

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