What’s In A Face?

A voice without the face is still the same person…right?

Given that humans are highly visual creatures, and that a disproportionately large portion of the brain is devoted to processing images (Wolfe, 2001), it seems to make sense that including video in virtual conferences could dramatically improve communication between people.  Interestingly enough, not all studies support this idea (Inkpen, Hegde, Czerwinkski & Zhang, 2010) and in many work situations, people often prefer going without video (Hirsh & Brokopp, 2005).  Why this should be the case is a discussion we’ll have to save for later.  For now, we want to look at the reported benefits of including video.

According to a 2010 study of 3-way discussions via computer conferencing, participants perceived significant differences in discussions they had with and without video–with the majority of participants giving “with video” a big thumbs up (Inkpen et al).  Bear in mind that this means they had simultaneous video of the other two members of their discussion group, not just one person at a time, (some of the aforementioned studies of videoconferencing were set up so that meeting members only saw the presenting speaker, aka voice activated switching with is used by Microsoft Office Communicator and most hardware room systems such as Polycom and Tandberg).  So this is what participants had to say about the benefits of including video versus audio alone:

1.  “With video [it was] easier to stay engaged and track the conversation.” (97)
Save brain power to focus on *what* is being said instead of who’s saying it.

2.  “Having eye-contact and seeing other people’s emotions made a huge difference and enhanced the conversation” (97)
Building rapport through eye-contact has always been an important point, beginning with ancient Greek and Roman oratory.

3.  “Felt accountable for joining in” (97)
Make sure others are throwing their weight.

4.  “No video…[i]t’s easier to think that pauses in the conversation mean you are not being paid attention to or that someone disagrees” (98)
Prevent avoidable misunderstandings and conflicts (which saves time and emotional energy).

5.  “But I must admit that I had no email or web distractions.” (97)
Know that you’ve got the listener’s attention.

So a voice without a face  just  isn’t the same person–it’s less of the same person.  A face can be a significant source of information for better communication.


Inkpen, K., Hegde, R., Czerwinski, M., Zhang, Z. (2010). Exploring spatialized audio & video for distributed conversations. Proceedings of CSCW 2010, Savannah, Georgia, 95-98.

Kirk, D., Sellen, A., Cao, X. (2010). Home video communication: mediating ‘closeness’. Proceedings of CSCW 2010, Savannah, Georgia, 135-144.

Wolfe, P. (2001). Brain Matters: Translating Research Into Classroom Practice. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

Comments ( 3 )
  • milton
    Michael Monkang Chu says:

    Do you have a reference to the (Hirsh & Brokopp, 2005) study you mention in the blog? I’m interested in understanding the reasons people are not interested in using video for communication.

  • milton
    john says:

    Yes. In fact, here’s a link: Why HP People Do and Don’t Use Videoconferencing Systems

    To me it appears to be a perception problem. The views held by those in the study are still held by many 6 years later despite the fact that VSee and several others have overcome the issues discussed. If you skip to “Implications” through “Conclusion” (pages 33-35) at the end, I think you will find that the concerns–difficult to set up; difficult to schedule; inability to share work documents; inability to conference from individual desks; and A/V reliability–have all been met over the last 6 years by a whole generation of competitors…which I think VSee is the best of, of course! 🙂

    On a side note, and just an educated guess, I believe Skype is largely responsible for raising awareness that video can be fairly easy. They’ve certainly broadened the video user base. But because Skype is not a great collaboration tool, it has been a gateway for many of our customers to approach us after learning video from a desktop is now user-friendly.

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