How Video Instant Messaging Works

Video instant messaging is being used increasingly to stay in touch with family, friends and business colleagues.
Video instant messaging is being used increasingly to stay in touch with family, friends and business colleagues.
Adrian Weinbrecht/Stone/Getty Images

Instant messaging -- in which online computer users send short text messages directly to friends and coworkers -- is becoming increasingly common. But imagine user sending his live video image as the message popping up on someone’s computer. Instead of typing, “Hello, what you doing?” you simply say it into your computer’s camera, which pipes your smiling image to the friend’s computer screen.

This is the essence of video instant messaging, a decade-old idea that today is finding more and more users.


Video messaging takes instant messaging to a higher, more colorful level. It’s hard to imagine a more personalized way to communicate over distances than the two-way, real-time, face-to-face communications video instant messaging provides.

While the idea for video instant messaging isn’t new, software developers had to overcome many challenges to make it not only workable, but acceptable to consumers. For instance, broadband networks had to grow in order to accommodate the video images, and small work station video cameras had to become common place, as well.

Now, there are many common uses for video instant messaging. Families and friends use it to keep in touch -- like a phone call, for instance. Businesses can use it to pop in on clients or conduct meetings among far-flung associates.

Like any messaging device, however, there are some basic rules and etiquette to follow. Video instant messaging, like textual instant messaging, is so easy to do that it can become an annoyance if users fail to use discretion.

With broadband and high-speed Internet connections more available, however, video instant messaging is becoming more the norm.

What innovations make video instant messaging possible? What are the uses for video instant messaging? Read on to find out. 


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.
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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. 


Uses for Video Instant Messaging

Families can stay in touch by using video instant messaging.
Families can stay in touch by using video instant messaging.
Malek Chomaru/Photographers Choice/Getty Images

Now that video instant messaging is on the scene, there are many ways to use it, for both personal and business purposes.

For businesses, video instant messaging provides another link between associates, suppliers and customers. Sales people, for example, can provide their clients with free software that allows them to pop in virtually on each other when needed. The salesperson can "drop by" on the client's desktop to check on the client's supply inventory, while the client can do the same. This personal, face-to-face application is more personal, and allows for better communication through non-verbal (does the client's body language/facial expressions indicate he is happy, upset, confused?) clues that aren't present in textual instant messaging.


Businesses also can use video instant messaging for conferences among its associates located around the world. Such meetings are flexible and affordable. Often only one party must pay for the service, which allows him or her to supply clients with free downloadable software to participate [source: PC World]. 

Personal uses for video instant messaging are limited only by the user's creativity. Some use it to check up on friends and relatives. Families can use it for a weekly teleconference between children and grandparents. Traveling spouses can also use it to stay in touch in real-time.

As with any form of electronic communication, there are unwritten rules of conduct. For instance, use and pay attention to status icons, which can tell you whether your intended partner is in the mood to receive a video instant message or even available. Families might want to schedule regular video instant message sessions to ensure everyone has time to attend. Also, business people should use communication methods with which their clients are comfortable. No matter how cool you think video instant messaging is, it may simply annoy a customer who views it as an intrusion.

For lots more information about video instant messaging and related topics, take a look at the links on the next page. 


Frequently Answered Questions

What is meant by instant message?
An instant message is a text message that is sent and received in real-time.