Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Video Instant Messaging Works


The Innovations of Video Instant Messaging
With video instant messaging, professionals from different offices can conduct meetings.
With video instant messaging, professionals from different offices can conduct meetings.
Daniel Bosler/Stone/Getty Images

Video instant messaging looked and sounded like a good idea before it actually become a good idea. That's because the detailed concept, which started to break the surface in tech circles during the late 1990s, was ahead of the technical capabilities available at the time.

Early video instant messaging software developers primarily faced problems with bandwidth and equipment, both of which were lacking.

Bandwidth was an issue because sending video signals require higher speeds and capacities to work. Dial-up phone-based systems just couldn't cut it; that is, they might work, but the video quality would be poor. During heavy use, such systems might not work at all. In order for video instant messaging systems to become common, developers had to wait for consumers to demand more bandwidth [source: NetworkWorldFusion]. 

As bandwidth availability and affordability grew, so did the opportunity to upgrade simple text-and-icon instant messaging with video instant messaging. The pipeline, essentially, became big enough to accommodate the increase in data that video signals produced.

Also, the basic equipment for video instant messaging -- the small, inexpensive computer video camera -- wasn't as readily available eight or 10 years ago as it is today. Such cameras are standard equipment today, with new computer makers including built-in cameras in their models. Users can buy stand-alone computer video cameras at most stores that carry electronics, with models retailing for $40.

Bandwidth and camera improvements together improved consumers' perception of video messaging by solving the "latency" problem. Simply explained, latency is the perception by a viewer of "jerky" unsmooth moving images caused by the number of frames per second the video achieves. Human beings perceive this jerky phenomenon at as low as 100 milliseconds between frames. But many video instant messaging systems today can run at 70 to 90 milliseconds between frames, solving that problem.

At the same time, more software developers began to offer products that allowed users to chat via video. Industry heavyweights such as Microsoft and Apple introduced products, as did dozens of smaller companies.

What are some of the uses for video instant messaging? On the next page we'll find out. 


More to Explore