Can You Hear Me Now?
That’s what it’s ultimately all about, right? People need to communicate. Whether it’s personal emotions, logistics and coordination, transactional, or whatever else – we need the ability to convey our thoughts to other people – and do so in real-time. When we’re all in the same room together its usually not that difficult. You speak, the other people hear, body language, expressions and demonstrations are added, and conveying moderately complex ideas is usually successful. When we’re not in the same room though…well therein lies the challenge.
Up until recently, real-time communication with people not in the room with us usually involved a major change in behavior. We would have to go somewhere – to a phone booth, to a videoconference or telepresence room, even just to our home telephone – something that involved us moving to the place where the tools were in order to use them, then go back to what we were doing.
The first significant change to that experience came with the mobile phone. Suddenly we could be contacted anywhere we happened to be. The telephone booth’s long lines at airports, conference centers and sporting venues disappeared – followed shortly thereafter by most of the telephone booths themselves. The convenience of picking up a device replaced the chore of going somewhere specific in order to access the needed tool.
In today’s world (for the most part) we still need to “make a call” by pressing buttons on a device in order to initiate this communication. However, that is changing too. With artificial intelligence engines (think the iPhone’s Siri as a rudimentary example) we can simply start speaking our commands and then just begin conversation to communicate with others. Some people do this today, speaking to their Google Glass to get information, or at a much simpler level, using Bluetooth headsets connected to their smart devices, initiating and/or receiving calls with just the appropriate voice commands.
In the “fantasy near future”, the superheroes from the Marvel’s Avengers movie all chat with each other in real-time to coordinate activities. The people back at the command ship (on the top in this photo) all use Plantronics Discovery 975 Bluetooth headsets – a device so revolutionary (lightweight, functional, attractive) Plantronics didn’t even call it a headset – they use the term “earpiece.” The heroes in the movie, well…up until very recently people thought that they just used magic to communicate with each other. Whether or not you bought-into the “poetic license” arguments that were used, or fell into the chorus of geeks all claiming this was a plot failure, it showed a terrific example of just being able to use voice communication from wherever you happened to be. On the ground, on a ship hundreds of miles away, flying through space – it didn’t matter, just talk in a normal voice and your colleagues heard you and could respond and coordinate. When the recent Iron Man 3 movie came out, the writers seemingly wanted to put the geek-chorus to rest and had a tiny wireless headset (that apparently has unlimited range and doesn’t need a smart device) fall out of Tony Stark’s ear at a critical moment. If my friends at Plantronics are working on such a device I’ll be sure to let you know in a future blog, but for now the best we can get from them is the awesome Voyager Legend. It is very much visible and absolutely requires pairing to a smart device, but other than that it comes close to the fantasy. When a call comes in it speaks to you and waits for you to reply (“call from Joe – answer or ignore.”)
As we approach a reality with ubiquitous voice communication there are still the elements of vocal tone and visual communications that are frequently needed to truly convey our thoughts and feelings. The renowned professor Albert Mehrabian is often cited for his studies showing that words alone make up only 7% of our communication. Tone of voice accounts for 38% and visual cues cover a whopping 55%. It’s not enough to just be able to hear people to truly communicate with them, one has to hear them clearly and see them to achieve effective communications.
The firm Polycom, (before they hired the CEO that nobody liked, and who frequently fired everyone before he was forced to resign in disgrace) really captured what this was all about in a way that no one else in the industry has been able to before or since. In this outstanding video that Polycom used to play for visitors at their EBC in Santa Clara, the concepts of true communication and connection are really made clear. One can easily understand why clarity and full bandwidth are important in voice communications, and why visual cues are essential to human interaction. In my opinion, it was a defining moment in the collaboration industry. A leading technology firm was not talking about bits and bytes and speeds and feeds. They had effectively changed the conversation into one about effective communication. Of course, just as Winston Churchill said, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.” No one in the collaboration industry ever followed-up on this groundbreaking approach to explaining effective communication – including Polycom, who’s new management at the time so despised anything of the past that they automatically jettisoned anything not created new just for the sake of doing so. As they now turn the page on those dark days and search for the soul of their firm, I hope that an examination of those abandoned thoughts will reveal just how valuable the concept of “Human Communication” was and is, and I also hope they will revitalize this campaign. (But maybe they should just hire actors for the video and not use executives / employees this time so they don’t have to feel embarrassed if one of them leaves the firm.)
Oddly enough, some of the people that were with Polycom at the time of that video are now with Plantronics, so maybe they are working on that invisible, super-range in-ear device – and trying to figure out how to add video too it as well. If they need more ideas they can always wait for the next Avengers movie too. These days just about every new device (real or imaginary) is proof of Clarke’s third law – Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Can you hear me now?
This article was written by David Danto and contains solely his own, personal opinions. David has over three decades of experience providing problem solving leadership and innovation in media and unified communications technologies for various firms in the corporate, broadcasting and academic worlds including AT&T, Bloomberg LP, FNN, Morgan Stanley, NYU, Lehman Brothers and JP Morgan Chase. He now works with Dimension Data as their Principal Consultant for the collaboration, multimedia, video and AV disciplines. He is also the IMCCA’s Director of Emerging Technology. David can be reached at David.Danto@Dimensiondata.com or DDanto@imcca.org and his full bio and other blogs and articles can be seen at Danto.info