- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2003

The gee-whizzery of technology is fascinating to watch, but it loses its punch through sheer mind-numbing speed of advance.

The new central-processing unit has 58 million transistors, runs at 2 gigahertz, and uses .13 micron geometries. It’s a technological marvel, but so is everything else. Next year, the numbers will double. One’s mind wanders.

Some things portend bigger changes. The age of video-connectedness takes shape without fanfare, except in magazines of geekery.

Last night, I sat in front of my aging Hewlett-Packard notebook, wearing a headset and talking to a friend on another continent. Thanks to aQuickCam, which is a cheap little video camera from Logitech that looks like a tennis ball, I was also watching him. (Cheap at about $50, but a good camera: That’s a formula for selling lots of them.) We were doing it through Yahoo Messenger, a free download from Yahoo.com, which also works.

The picture was tolerable and updated about once a second. With more bandwidth, which is an economic rather than a technical consideration, it could have been a lot better. The bandwidth is coming.

Video-connectedness can be mildly nutty. When the voice connection failed briefly owing to congestion on the Internet, my friend scribbled a note and held it up for me to read. From Asia.

It’s gee-whiz for sure, the poor man’s videoconferencing, and it teeters between gimmickry and usefulness. Web-cams are used on the Web, of course, largely for do-it-yourself pornography.

But I think they will soon be a real service. I don’t see how Web-camming can fail to become part of daily computing once things get a little better and easier.

Even the jerky pictures of today provide much of the emotional sense of being across the table from a friend. My buddy had mentioned his wife, a lovely Chinese woman whom I had never met. After chatting a minute via Web-cam, I felt as if I had met her. It removed the impersonality of distance.

We are very close to being able to sit in a cabin in Montana with satellite broadband and visit, really visit, with friends across the earth.

And that, if you think about it, is just wild.

Now, for years people have been saying that video telephones were just around the corner. Somehow, we never got to the corner. I figured that the promoters were making the classic mistake of techno-geekery. That is assuming that if an idea included neat technology, everyone would want it, even though it didn’t do anything anyone wanted done.

I figured people didn’t want to be looked at every time they made a telephone call. Women might not want to be recognizable to stalkers. People might not want to have to look their best all the time.

I remember kneeling, one morning years ago, in the more-or-less altogether atop a pile of scuba gear, unshaven, in a bachelor pit that looked like a practice ground for tornadoes. The editor of an important publication called. I put on my best matinee-idol voice and tried to sound intelligent.

If she had been able to see me, she probably would have called the police. Videophones, I was sure, were not a good idea.

Maybe I was wrong. As a normal way of communicating, they’re at least terrible and maybe worse. But for friends, yes.

The next step in video-connectedness is the phone-cam, built into cell phones. These come in multitudinous forms from firms such as Nokia, Motorola, Palm and Ericsson. These companies are pursuing the Holy Grail of the gadget-mad: combining phone, address book, spreadsheet, word processor, Web browser and, yes, video camera into one doohickey that fits in a pocket.

We are on the way to the two-way wrist TV of Dick Tracy.

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