Could video calling be the iTablet's killer app?

Apple-s-TabletIf you’re anxious to know what Apple is announcing today, join us as we cover the event live, starting at 1 p.m. ET

We’re less than 48 hours until Apple finally (hopefully) lifts the veil on the most anticipated new tech product since the iPhone – an Apple tablet device which has become known online as the “iTablet” or “iSlate”.

Since the rumour mill really began to pick up steam about six months ago, there has been enormous speculation about all of the device’s potential features. Screen size, wireless connectivity, processor power, OS, battery life and app support have all been hotly debated within the tech world.

One of the more interesting memes has been the discussion around the presence (or lack thereof) of a webcam or indeed any camera at all.

On the “it will have one” side of the debate, TechCrunch offered up a recent statement by an exec at French wireless company Orange, as proof.

On the “it will not have one” side, industry insider John Gruber maintains that, European wireless carrier statements notwithstanding, there will be no camera on board.

But let’s say for argument’s sake that the mysterious device does indeed have a webcam, which would enable video calling via Skype or any other app that supports this kind of two-way communication. It would certainly be cool to be able to do this from the couch, the park bench or anywhere else you can get a Wi-Fi or 3G signal.

But doesn’t this sound a little lack-lustre by Apple standards? After all, you can already do this on any of Apple’s computers, including the full line of MacBooks and MacBook Pros. Come to think of it, you can do it on practically every netbook that has shipped in the last two years, many of which retail for under $300.

So why would this be a killer app, or worthy of discussion at all?

Some would say that if the iTablet did not come with a webcam, it would spell instant death for the product, and I tend to agree. A webcam is a must.

Let’s take a step back… Apple is probably best known for taking everyday computing tasks and making them effortless, enjoyable and above all, simple. The kind of experience that invariably brings a smile to the face of people who try it for the first time.

The worst part of video calling, in my humble opinion, is the lack of eye contact.  As human beings, we are programmed (with a few cultural exceptions) to want to look into the eyes of the person who is talking to us, and to whom we are talking. As I’ve explained to my 8-year-old son many times, if you’re looking at me while I’m talking, I know you’re listening.

And that’s the problem with today’s video calling – the position of the webcam at the top, sides or bottom of our screens means that if we’re looking at the image of the person we’re talking to, we are not looking at the webcam and thus not really “looking at” the other person at all. We spend the entire conversation looking at someone who appears to be looking very intently at a spot on our body just above our navel. Not a very natural or satisfying experience for most people I’ll wager.

Which brings me to my guess/wish/speculation on how Apple is going to change the personal communication game and blow us all away: The iTablet will feature a webcam embedded behind the display itself, enabling us to (for the first time) actually look into the eyes of our caller.

Now I have absolutely zero idea how they would achieve this, or if it’s even possible with today’s display technology. But I know this: if indeed the iTablet possessed this feature, it would not only create a significant market for the device (something many analysts doubt even exists) but would justify the rumoured $1000 price tag it will carry.

I also know this: Apple has filed a patent for exactly this type of implementation.

Crazy? Maybe. But a screen-embedded webcam would undoubtedly create the kind of insanely great experience that Apple has always been known and admired for.

If it turns out to be nothing more than wishful thinking on my part, then let this post be a challenge to all of the other manufacturers out there (including Apple): Find a way to make video calling the kind of experience it should have been from the beginning: a genuine face-to-face chat that brings a smile to our faces.

Update, 10:56 PM ET: You know, the more I think about this, the more likely it sounds. ComputerWorld has an interview with Aaron Vronko who, by all accounts, is a hardware expert when it comes to Apple devices. Vronko reckons that Apple will have to use an OLED display for the tablet’s screen if for no other reason than power efficiency (OLED is much more efficient than backlit LCD). He also contends that OLED would make an ideal choice for the kind of readability that ebook apps would benefit heavily from. But the real clincher for me is that Apple’s webcam-behind-the-screen patent specifies the use of an OLED screen.

OLED would also make the iTablet (MacPad anyone?) one stunning digital photoframe. I know that sounds ludicrous – paying $1000 for a photo frame, but consider this: If video calling is to be a maintsay of the device, it will need to be easily positioned on a kitchen counter, or mounted on a swing-arm at eye level. This would also be the ideal positioning for an array of display-based apps, such an iPhoto-linked gallery. My guess: the gadget will ship with kick-stand that gives it that table or counter-top stance, and may even support some sort of VESA mount.

Update, 6:59 AM, Jan 26: Okay I’ve been thinking about this all night. One thing’s for sure: I need more of a life. But here are some other Apple predictions that fit with my webcam-behind-the-screen theory:

– Why would Apple stop with just their tablet? It makes sense that if they’ve reinvented the webcam, they will announce a complete refresh of their entire line of Macs, with this technology either included, or it’s a real price problem, as an option.

– There have been rumours about Apple making an actual TV for some time now, and Chris Seibold over at AppleMatters makes a compelling argument for why it would be a good idea. I think he’s right. I also think that the recent announcements from CES around major players like Panansonic and Samsung involving Skype-enabled HDTV sets with add-on webcams means that now would be the perfect time for Apple to enter the market. Not only do they have years of experience fine tuning the set-top box experience via their Apple TV product, but a one-device marriage of Apple TV, iTunes (for rentals, purchases), general Internet access for all the other apps and of course the magic face-to-face webcam, could just be the one TV that people feel they must own. They will annnounce an Apple HDTV.

The only doubts I can throw at this little twist are:

– If in fact Apple’s hidden webcam is dependent on OLED, an Apple HDTV in any size that people would actually want (think 40″ or more) would be, at least currently, prohibitively expensive. One of these units could easily run upwards of $4,000, maybe more.

– Everyone is betting on 3D being the next big thing in home entertainment. The sheer amount of momentum 3D has at the studio and manufacturer levels suggests that whether people really want it or not, it’s coming. Sony is looking to debut their forst 3D TV in Canada early next month.Engadget spotted a 24″ Sony 3D OLED at CES so obviously OLED TVs can handle 3D – but again, what would this do to the price of an Apple OLED TV?

Plausible or not, most people who have witnessed an OLED display in-person will agree with me when I say they are bar-none the most vivid and beautiful ever made. They really blow LCD (even LED-backlit LCD) away in all the criteria that our eyes use to make judgements about what we’re seeing. Even the venerable Plasma TV seems dull by comparison. For Apple to make a major investment in this technology makes a lot of sense. It would make their hardware immediately and obviously better than the competition.

Update, 5:11 p.m. Jan 27th:

I am returning this crystal ball to Wal-Mart. It apparently doesn’t work at all.



  1. Max

    I think that the rumored iTab/iSlate/iTablet/whatever you call it, might be a big seller for Apple. They are doing very well right now, and if this is a really good product, they could double their hold on the personal computing market, from 4 percent to 8 percent.


  2. Bern Grush

    There is absolutely a way to embed a camera behind the screen. And if there wasn’t, Apple would find a way. No one can out-design Jobs’ team. Thanks for adding a new idea to the rumor mill (well, I hadn’t heard it before!)


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  4. Max

    Well, it still looks great. I wish it ran OS X, but I guess this will do. Hope it will be in Canada despite some troubles. Might have a relative from the States buy me one and ship it up here.


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