Last summer, we ran an observational study to understand how people interact with each other through video conferencing on mobile phones in a variety of situations (Jones et al., 2015). Our motivation for doing this was clear: with current technologies, it is becoming more and more possible for people to engage in conversations through video while out and about, with devices such as mobile phones and tablets. This was not possible for most people ten years ago—back then, the technology wasn’t readily available, and the communications infrastructure required to stream video across long distances wasn’t there. Nowadays, cellular and Wi-Fi networks are abundant, and almost everyone owns a smartphone capable of video communication. However, almost no one uses their cell phone to video chat on a regular basis, especially while on the go or while engaged in some activity. While others have pointed to the social issues of initiating and engaging in video calls in both public and private spaces (e.g., seeing into one’s home or including unwanted bystanders in the video call), our study focused mainly on the limitations of mobile phones in being able to support the communicative intents of those engaged in a video call.
We recruited nine pairs of participants from our university campus to participate in our study. For each pair, one person was familiar with the campus while the other person was not. We asked each pair to complete a set of four tasks together while communicating through Google Hangouts. One person, which we call the mobile collaborator (MC), communicated through a smartphone and was in several different spots around campus; while the other person, which we call the desk-bound collaborator (DC), communicated through a desktop computer and was sat down at a cubicle desk during the study. For Task 1, the DC instructed the MC in building a LEGO castle; for Task 2, the MC gave the DC a tour of the central parts of campus; for Task 3, the MC and DC worked together to construct a three-day meal plan within budgetary constraints consisting only of items from the food court; and for Task 4, the MC and DC worked together to find a set of gifts in a store for a person they were given a profile of within budgetary constraints. We interviewed participants afterward to understand their experiences.
Participants used the mobile phone camera in a variety of ways to support their communicative intents—similar to how the camera is used in a variety of ways to create many different effects in film. However, the mobile phone camera also limits what communicators can convey, and it can create a frustrating experience for both parties.
We noticed that overall, MCs spent about an equal amount of time giving overview shots as they did giving detail shots. There were many different camera mechanics that participants used to give overviews and detail views, and these were very similar to some camera mechanics we see in cinema—for example, wide-angle shots, approach shots, walkthrough shots, panning, spinning, and centre-staging.
While the physical form-factor of the phone was sufficient for supporting these types of camera movements, the features of the phone camera and quality of the video made it difficult to convey certain information. For example, participants could not manually zoom or focus with the camera, and it was difficult to show clear details of something, especially from far away. We noticed this by seeing, for example, numerous MCs point the phone camera at a menu board while at the same time reading its contents, which appeared blurry in the video frame.
It was also difficult to give the DC a full sense of awareness of the spatiality of the mobile environment and the things within it. This was evident by the maps of the mobile environment drawn by the DCs during the touring task, which bore little resemblance to the actual layout of the environment.
Asymmetries of control and participation were also quite noticeable across several groups during tasks that were designed to involve active participation and control by both parties. For example, some MCs completed one or more of Tasks 3 (the meal plan task) and 4 (the shopping task) almost entirely on their own, while their partners simply observed.
We each took a specific role in running the study and guiding our participants. During each session, Brennan stayed in the lab and guided the DC, while Anna accompanied and guided the MC. Brennan handled the recording of raw video footage and resolved technical issues on the desktop end, while Anna handled the editing and syncing of raw videos and resolved technical issues on the mobile end. Anna also had to make sure that the MC did not put herself in danger or pose a threat or disturbance to bystanders. While out around campus, Anna also got to see the social aspects of video chatting in public. For the most part, no one noticed; but there were some people that stared and made us feel uncomfortable.
The process of analyzing and coding our video data was very time consuming—in fact, it took over a month to complete. At the beginning of this stage, we each skimmed through a few of the early videos and then got together to figure out what types of events were interesting to code. Brennan then carefully coded these events using video analysis software.
Overall, we had a lot of fun running this study, and we learned quite a bit—not just from the results themselves, but also from our own experiences. We learned that running a study out in the field isn’t always easy and requires very careful planning and consideration of many different things.
We were lucky that we ran our study during the middle of the summer while the weather was nice. While we had to take the weather into careful consideration, it turned out never to be a problem at all—Anna got to get out and enjoy the sunshine!
In the end, we’re very happy about our study results, and we’re glad that we were able to publish them. We believe that our work can provide a lot of useful insight in the academic community, and it has the potential to pave the way for interesting future developments in mobile video conferencing technologies.
By Brennan Jones and Anna Witcraft