iPad 2: Cameras ain’t cameras

I’m an enthusiastic user of the iPad 2 that arrived two weeks ago. It was everything I could expect, except in one respect: the camera.

Actually, there are two cameras – the front-facing 480×640 (VGA) resolution camera and the rear 720×960 resolution camera. Given that the iPad 2 display has a resolution of 768×1024, neither camera is capable of filling the screen to its full potential. However, given I was most excited about the video calling potential of the iPad 2, it is the front-facing camera that concerns me the most.

Comparing that camera to a VGA  resolution web cam that I had around (the Logitech QuickCam for Notebooks that according to Wikipedia was first released in 2002), it is definitely of higher-quality. You would certainly hope so, given the decade for technology to improve in the interim. But, it is still only VGA Рjust 0.3 megapixels.

Image on the left taken by Logitech QuickCam for Notebooks, and image on the right taken by Apple iPad 2 front-facing camera

Although, when you then use the FaceTime application on the iPad, the quality takes a noticeable dive. Based on some info from a jailbroken iPhone mod, it seems FaceTime actually runs at 240×320 resolution (i.e. 0.08 megapixels).

Same picture as above, but through the FaceTime app on the iPad 2.

Since FaceTime for the Mac supports video calling up to 720p resolutions, it’s not a limitation of the protocol. But it’s apparently also the same resolution that Skype runs on the iPhone (and hence iPad), so trying a different app won’t change that.

The whole video calling experience does not show off the best of the iPad hardware, however the camera and the reduced resolution used in FaceTime is just good enough to achieve an acceptable result. Given that Apple normally aims to delight and amaze with their devices, this doesn’t meet my expectations.

While I can see how it could be better, FaceTime is still slick enough to have encouraged me to use it many times since we got the iPad 2 – it is a good video-calling device. That doesn’t stop me hoping that will be a future firmware upgrade that will at least restore some of the lost resolution.

Also, in the same way that the lack of a camera in the iPad 1 created a clear point of difference when the iPad 2 was released, the low-quality camera in the iPad 2 gives Apple the opportunity to fix this in their next iPad. (If they could find some way to include a directional speaker, that would be awesome too.)

Placing video calls on the iPad 2 has confirmed for me that it could be an incredible device for this use case, and I hope that Skype releases an iPad app to create a bit more competition here (and open up the range of people that I can call). We might get better video calling resolution, yet!

Is mobile video-calling a device thing?

Ever since I’ve been involved in the telecoms industry, it seems that people have been proposing video calling as the next big thing that will revolutionize person-to-person calling. Of course, the industry has been proposing it for even longer than that, as this video from 1969 shows.

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One thing not anticipated by that video is mobile communication, and video calling was meant to be one of the leading services of 3G mobiles. When 3G arrived in Australia in 2003, the mobile carrier Three sold its 3G phones as pairs so that you’d immediately have someone you could make a mobile video call to.

Needless to say, the introduction of 3G didn’t herald a new golden age of person-to-person video calling in Australia. So, despite all the interest in making such video calling available, why hasn’t it taken off? I’ve heard a number of theories over the years, such as:

  • The quality (video resolution, frame rate, audio rate, etc.) isn’t high enough. Once it’s sufficiently good to be able to easily read subtle expressions/ sign language gestures, people will take to it.
  • The size of the picture isn’t big enough. When it is large enough to be close to “actual size”, it will feel like communicating with a person and it will succeed.
  • The camera angle is wrong, eg. mobile phones tend to shoot the video up the nose, and PC webcams tend to look down on the head. If cameras could be positioned close enough to eye-level, people would feel like they are talking directly to each other, and video calling would take off.
  • People don’t actually want to be visible in a call, for various etiquette-related reasons such as: it prevents them multi-tasking which would otherwise appear rude, or it obliges them to spend time looking nice beforehand in order to not appear rude.

But despite the low level of use of video calling on mobiles, there is one area where it is apparently booming: Skype. According to stats from Skype back in 2010, at least a third of Skype calls made use of video, rising to half of all calls during peak times.

One explanation could be that Skype is now so well known for its ability to get video calling working between computers that when people want to do a video call, they choose Skype. Hence, it’s not so much that a third of the time, Skype users find an opportunity to video call, but that a third of Skype users only use Skype for video. Still, it’s an impressive stat, and also suggests that super-high quality video may not be a requirement.

Certainly, I’ve used Skype for video calling many times. I’ve noticed the expected problems with quality and camera angle, but it hasn’t put me off using it. I find that it’s great for sharing the changes in children across my family who are spread around the world, and otherwise difficult to see regularly. But a tiny fraction of my person-to-person calls are Skype video calls.

However, I’ve ordered an Apple iPad 2 (still waiting for delivery) and one of the main reasons for buying it was because of the front-facing camera and the support for video calling. I am hoping, despite all of the historical evidence to the contrary, that this time, I am going to have a device that I want to make video calls from.

The iPad 2 seems to be a device that will have acceptable quality (640×480 at 30fps), and it is large enough to be close to actual size, but not so large that the camera (mounted at the edge of the screen) is too far away from eye line. So, they may have found the sweet spot for video calling devices.

If you know me, be prepared to take some video calls. I hope that doesn’t seem rude.