The Psychology of Videoconferencing

By Robert Detwiler, Senior Director Product Development, InFocus

Robert Detwiler, Senior Director Product Development, InFocus

Videoconferencing has achieved hyper-reality but it still can elicit very feral reactions

The growing ubiquity of videoconferencing has changed the dynamic of the business meeting. The concept got a boost during the Great Recession, as business travel was cut back to save on costs. It helped to give the technology greater traction. Early on in the history of videoconferencing, no one could mistake the fact that they were in an artificial environment. The concept was first introduced at the 1964 World's Fair in New York City on par with the personal jetpacks (that we’re all still waiting for). It had to wait for IT-centric developments like the Network Video Protocol (1976) and the Packet Video Protocol (1981), to come along. But as the technology has improved, more of the human—psychological and physiological—considerations came to the fore.

Nuance Noticed

Compared to an audio-only conference call, videoconferencing offers participants a vast array of input, rivaling that of actual face-to-face interaction, with one of the main advantages being the ability to observe facial nuance. While tone of voice and even volume level can be used to parse someone’s unspoken thoughts, crucial nonverbal signals used in communication would be completely lost in an audio-only exchange and they take on almost cinematic inflections in high definition.

What we see on the screen, just as we observe in real life, may be fleeting—some facial expressions last only 200 milliseconds, and gestures accompanying the speech may be as fleeting as 50 ms. But as long as the visual resolution of the video is even reasonably high, videoconferencing users will have a substantial advantage over the those working on a conference call. You can’t see someone frowning on a conference call.

High-Res Environment - In the ‘Room’ and in the Moment

But once in a high-resolution video environment, other dynamics come into play. As video approaches 4K resolution—literally four times that of the 1080p you see on a Blu-ray disc—and surround audio adds to the sense of immersion in an environment, a phenomenon known as ‘suspension of disbelief’ takes effect. It’s what allows us to watch a sci-fi film and enjoy the story rather than over-analyzing a seemingly absurd premise. It’s a very right-brain 35 experience; natural left-brain skepticism is put on hold while our imagination enjoys the ride.

However, once you’re immersed in an interactive and collaborative videoconference environment, in which participants are talking to each other, watching and reacting to voices, faces, presentation graphics and other input, they unconsciously find themselves using both hemispheres.
“The experience can become profoundly hyper-real,” says Glenn Jystad, in charge of product marketing for videoconferencing systems developed by InFocus Corporation and one of the key product managers who worked on the company’s high-definition Mondopad, a large-format touch PC for video conferencing and whiteboarding. “There is an intimidation factor in the beginning; it’s like walking onto a stage. But you get accustomed to it, and more importantly, I think, that hyper-reality can make you feel very present, in the virtual ‘room’ and in the moment. That can keep everyone in the meeting highly engaged.”

Jystad says that effect is a positive one, but it puts a premium on the quality of the experience, and by extension, on the technology platform being used: The more transparent the actual experience is, the less risk of interrupting the suspension of disbelief. “I don’t want to have to go looking for the mouse when I’m making a point in a meeting. I want to be able to reach out and touch the interface and have everyone else see what I’m communicating—and that’s not something I can do on Skype, FaceTime or Google Hangouts,” he says.

Hands On

Nuance goes both ways, however. Paul J. Bailo, author of The Essential Digital Interview Handbook, says that the physical mannerisms that people exhibit in face-to-face meetings— and that are integral elements of their personalities—can be communicated in high-definition videoconferencing environments. People who use their hands to communicate may feel constrained by the videoconference’s emphasis on what Bailo has identified as the ‘triangle of love’—defined as the head and upper shoulders that are what the camera usually sees. Research that the Ph.D. candidate and NYU adjunct professor has done in his own video lab suggests that a 10-degree nod of the head towards the camera registers with the same impact on the recipient as a handshake or pat on the back. It’s a first-impression gesture that can set the tone of the rest of the on-screen encounter.

“We can’t really use our hands on screen as we can in face-to-face meetings, so we have to develop a set of subtle movements and words to take their place,” he explains, including, for instance, leaning slightly into the camera to connote interest or agreement. Bailo likens these to how actors convey thoughts and emotions nonverbally, and they can become second nature after a few experiences. “Think of the great Hollywood stars, like Clark Gable or Cary Grant,” he says. “They could communicate deeply with a few very calculated movements. That’s what you’re shooting for.”

It’s Magic

Simon Dudley, a UX specialist at the Excession Events consultancy in Austin, Texas, says the level of sophistication that high-end videoconferencing has achieved makes manifest Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

“We’re at the point where participating in videoconferencing at the high end of the spectrum is like looking through a window,” says Dudley. “You can easily forget that the people on the other side of the glass are thousands of miles apart.” While consumer interactive platforms like FaceTime and Skype offer a somewhat rougher experience, he acknowledges that they have contributed to the ease with which we can now enter into high-end videoconferencing. “They’re actually a way to practice for the more sophisticated experience,” he says.

Dudley says the real magic of technologically advanced video conferencing is to use it more, and not let it become a tool reserved for special events. “If you build a culture where only senior management use it, if you put it somewhere where it’s difficult to access, like a boardroom, that has the long-term effect of making people less comfortable when they do use it,” he explains. “Internal marketing of the videoconferencing platform is vitally important to making it a regular part of how you do business.”

The human side of videoconferencing can easily get lost amid the brilliance of its ever more sophisticated technology. But the best outcomes occur when humanity and technology can be blended seamlessly.