Video calls, doing stuff together, and the TV room

17.24, Wednesday 22 Apr 2020

This morning we lunged and squatted along to PE with Joe as we have for most days of the lockdown, and all together across three homes and two continents as we have for the past week or so.

We have a family iMessage group so there’s usually a bit of text chat just before 9 to see who’s up for it. Then somebody hits the FaceTime button (which is hidden at the top) to kick off a video call.

Then what we do, in our house, is precariously prop the iPad against the TV for the group video call. The workout is a YouTube Live thing at 9am every weekday, so that shows on the TV itself. We’re here in London. There’s another bit of the family doing the same elsewhere in the UK, and then another bit of the family in Queensland, Australia, where’s it’s 6pm, and we all do the workout together.

The noise is catastrophic so we tend to mute YouTube and listen the exercise instructions via Australia instead, which is out of sync and absurd when you think about it, but it works.

There’s a little bit of chat in rest periods, mainly with our toddler who gets thoroughly underfoot – I managed to sit on her and later take her out entirely with a backwards kick today. Then afterwards we wave bye or sometimes hang out.

I think this is magical.

A couple of ways this could be better:

  • Apple should add a FaceTime app to Apple TV and support an approved set of 3rd party wireless webcams to use with it (not that I own an Apple TV, but I would buy one in a shot with this feature…)
  • YouTube Live streams should be FaceTime participants we can invite directly into any call.

I was chatting with designer + friend Joe Malia about this a couple days ago and he said I want something to keep in touch with folks more but don’t always have something new to say (and that’s not a bad thing) – and I said, what a design brief that would be: how to keep in touch without anything new to say.

Perhaps there are a couple of clues in the daily workouts?

Video calls are becoming accepted as a place we can do stuff together rather than just have mere conversations. And you don’t need anything new to say if you’re doing a workout, or playing bridge, or singing in a choir together (all of which my mum is doing pretty regularly btw).

So one question is how video call software needs to change if it’s going to be used for domestic activities, instead of sharing PowerPoint slides.

Then thinking about togetherness which has a kind of “social attention” ladder. From the top…

  • full focus: having a conversation together on a video call
  • partial focus: doing something separately but together, still on a video call, like a workout
  • multitasking: having a conversation in a group text chat
  • awareness: dropping the odd funny link into the group chat, without any expectation of a reply
  • presence: at the very bottom, simply being in the same text chat group.

(Some systems have a more developed “presence” system: green or red activity lights will show whether someone is online or not, that kind of thing.)

As a group, in whole or in part, we move up and down this ladder: there’s a push/pull from individual members that makes this happen. And it’s fascinating to look really closely at the exact push/pull mechanisms.

I wonder about the role of location as part of the push/pull on the ladder. There’s no way that I would let any of my family peep through my phone or my tablet to automatically turn a chat into a call…

but the TV in the front room?

You know, MAYBE?? The front room is already a kind of semi-permeable space…

The Viewing Room

The full text of The Naked Sun (1956) by Isaac Asimov, in which Elijah Baley visits Solaria, a planet of where everyone lives on vast estates managed by robots, and they never, ever meet in person.

When they want to talk, they step into a Viewing Room.

Daneel said, ‘It is necessary first to signal the individual one desires to view. A robot will, of course, receive the message. If the individual being signalled is available and wishes to receive the view, full contact is established.’

Baley’s glance fell to the floor. Where did his room end and the other begin? It was easy to tell. There was a line where the quality of the light changed and that must be it.

And there’s a discussion about the difference between seeing and viewing:

‘Same thing, isn’t it?’ said Baley.

‘Not at all the same thing. You’re viewing me right now. You can’t touch me, can you, or smell me, or anything like that. You could if you were seeing me. Right now, I’m two hundred miles away from you at least. So how can it be the same thing?’

Baley grew interested. ‘But I see you with my eyes.’

‘No, you don’t see me. You see my image. You’re viewing me.’


My point is that I don’t think I’d mind somebody from my family group chat peeping into my front room. Perhaps with a behaviour like this:

  • my devices also join the group chat and show up as avatars
  • somebody can tap on the icon of my TV to initiate a call…
  • at my end, the TV says out loud “Starting call in 10, 9, 8…” and I any point I can yell out “not right now,” and it refuses the connection
  • if it does connect, it’s a voice call only – a bit like call screening, only we can talk both ways, and I can shout across the house
  • then if I actively step up to the TV and accept the call, it goes to video.

Because TV is a lean-back experience (that old phrase…) it should be possible to hang up the call by raising my hand in the air (to let the computer that I’m addressing it, none of this Hey Siri nonsense) then saying “hang up.”

That would let me go about my day, multitask, make a cup of tea, play with the little one, and do it all simultaneously to being on the video call. My phone should act as a portable mic when I step out of the room.

I’m not sure I’d want this kind of behaviour in any other room except the front room with the TV, but that shared space is so different from my phone, or the other rooms in the house, maybe we should design for it specifically?

Too much writing! Enough.

Oh no actually, one more thing!

That talk of Viewing Rooms reminds me of the Cisco video conferencing setup where they paint the room the same neutral grey at both ends, and the table looks like it continues through the screen, etc. Fancy.

Years back we were doing a bunch of work with Intel, and the team we were working with was in Portland, and it was morning there, and we had to travel to Swindon to do the calls in the evening, a bit of a way outside London, because they had the full Cisco kit set up there.

So it’s evening and it’s also a chilly day, so we’re all bundled up. But the meeting goes on like three hours and those big screens run HOT, so progressively the room is getting hotter and hotter. And by the end we’ve all pulled off our sweaters and rolled up our sleeves and unbuttoned our shirts, designers presenting the latest project deck from our meeting room sauna, all the while doing the world’s slowest, sweatiest striptease.

Definitely too much now. Enough enough.

Follow-up posts:

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.