How New Software Moves Video Calls Out of the Skype Age

Software makes your Jurassic webcam so much better

Key Takeaways

  • Video calls have exploded, and yet the hardware and software are as bad as ever.
  • iPhones and iPads have better cameras because they can afford to.
  • Software and AI are already adding modern features.
Working at home having a video conference with colleagues


Jasmin Merdan / Getty Images

In one year, video calling has gone from a once-a-month FaceTime with the grandparents to an essential part of everyday life. But the technology is still stuck in the Skype Age. 

Video calls might be the most primitive services we use. We deal with audio delays, frozen video, and most calls start with everyone saying, "Can you hear me?" But that’s about to change. Apple just added the amazing Center Stage to the M1 iPad Pro, Reincubate’s Camo does the same for the Mac, and the industry is waking up to the possibilities of using artificial intelligence (AI) in video chats.

"There's been a perception that video-calling is 'done,' and that Skype solved the problem in 2003. Since then, while there have been plenty of social video apps, video-calling has largely been enterprise hasn't changed much," Aidan Fitzpatrick, CEO of Reincubate, told Lifewire via email.

Why Are Webcams So Bad?

Before we get to the terrible apps, let’s find out why webcams are so bad. Mostly, it’s down to cost. The front-facing cameras in iPhones and iPads, for example, are excellent. They also have depth-sensing features that are great for improving video, but we’ll get to that. Phones are expensive, whereas laptops are cheap.

FaceTime Center Stage on an iPad Pro

"Apple (and, to a lesser extent, Android vendors) have invested a lot in camera technology, but their hardware still doesn't come cheap," says Fitzpatrick. "They're able to bundle this new technology as part of their phones, but there's been less of a compelling reason to bundle it in a standalone webcam or even in laptops. If consumers paid $750-$1,000 for a webcam, this would start to make more sense, but there's noT enough demand at that price to justify this."

Will laptop cameras get better? Probably not. Even Apple’s brand-new iMac, born amid COVID-era video calling, has the same 1080p webcam as previous Macs. And yet, it looks a lot better than those older Macs. And that’s where software comes in. 

AI and Apps

The improvement in the 2021 iMac’s webcam (almost) all comes down to software. Now that Macs use the same chips as iPhones and iPads, they can take advantage of years of Apple’s research into image-processing tech, which is a mixture of software and dedicated chips to process images and video. 

This tech can be startling. The new M1 iPad Pro features Center Stage. This takes the video from the high-resolution, ultra-wide-angle front camera and automatically zooms in (or crops) to the people in the frame. This means the virtual camera can follow you as you move or zoom in and out and as people join and leave the call. 

Now, Reincubate’s Camo does the same thing for the Mac. Camo uses the camera on your iPhone or iPad as a webcam for your Mac, complete with all kinds of cool processing, like blurring the background or making you look better. 

"You can look at a video like this where someone is comparing the leading webcams, but they're only ever comparing webcams to webcams," says Fitzpatrick. "If you step back and compare the image quality here against real life—or a movie—you'll see they're terrible. People have tended to compare webcams against older, worse cameras: 'it's better than nothing.'"

Someone using the Camo app with a MacBook webcam.

Reincubate

AI can solve other problems, too. Speech collision, for example, happens when several people talk at once. A new patent from IBM fixes this. "The system is capable of adjusting volume and timing for user voices of the teleconference," Founders Legal’s Lauren Hawksworth told Lifewire via email, "which can also allow for more seamless communication without completely muting other parties." 

Other AI possibilities include real-time subtitles and video processing to make it seem like people are looking at each other, not their cameras. And in the future virtual reality, or augmented reality, could do away with screens and make it seem like you are sharing a physical space. 

Lights, Camera, Camo

While camera quality is important, part of the problem is us. Desk-bound laptop cameras look up our noses, and we never light ourselves properly. Also, we still don’t have a good, shared consensus on how to behave. 

"People are figuring out where to look, how expressive to be, how much of their body should be in the shot, and what sort of background they should have. The research has already been done to answer these questions, but culture has to evolve around it, and the answers aren't always intuitive," says Fitzpatrick. "All the studies say virtual backgrounds are terrible (the data says they signal low trust, low authenticity, and lack of preparedness), but people still use them."

As the world reopens, video might be less urgent, but some uses will remain. Working from home is a welcome trend, as are virtual visits to the doctor or remote yoga sessions. And hopefully, the video software will continue to improve.

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