Blog Post

7 for 7: A Front-Mounted Web Cam

This is the fifth in a series of 7 posts in the 7 days prior to Apple’s January 27 media event in which I explore various possibilities for an Apple Tablet and other potential announcements.

Three years ago, my wife and I bought an iMac for her parents. They live over 10 hours away by car, and we wanted them to see more of our daughter as she grew up than they could in person. The iMac proved to be the perfect solution, with its built-in webcam and the included easy-to-use iChat software for video conferencing. Weekly “I chats” with Lolo and Lola (her grandparents are Filipino) have become the norm in our household. Of course, built-in webcams have been features on iMacs and Mac laptops for several years now and have likely been among several key reasons that Mac marketshare has risen steadily over the same period.

As speculation about the second-generation iPhone reached a fever pitch, many hoped or predicted that it would include a front-facing camera in addition to the one on the back, allowing video conferencing from a mobile device. Not only did the iPhone 3G not have such a feature, neither did its successor, the iPhone 3GS. It did, however, feature a video camera. With iPhone apps from Ustream and Qik, its now possible to stream live video from your iPhone to the web. But because the camera is on the back, you have to turn the phone around to shoot video of yourself. Getting yourself in frame would be a challenge, and the apps don’t allow two-way video anyway.

If Apple sticks to its short history for iPhone introductions, we’ll welcome the newest in June or July of this year. Many people will likely once again hope for or predict a front-facing camera and mobile videoconferencing. But the Apple event on the 27th and the tablet everyone is expecting is in my mind a better opportunity and more likely scenario for Apple to reinvent video chatting via a touch-based, portable device.

iChat on the iSlate?

There are several factors that influence decisions over which features make it into shipping products. Cost, of course, can be a major determinant, but so are impact on sales, the tradeoffs of including it, and the relative value of the feature for its users, among others. A rear-facing camera is a rather obvious but essential feature of the iPhone. Phones have been able to take pictures and videos for years; without a camera, the iPhone wouldn’t be nearly as useful or successful. The iPhone is already an expensive device, and adding a second, front-facing camera may add too much cost. A second camera might also mean undesirable tradeoffs: if you position it near the earpiece, what happens to the proximity sensor, and can you fit it in the existing form factor anyway? A dual-lens camera that faces both directions may fit, but would likely increase cost and might decrease reliability. But a front-facing camera has several things going for it, including creating differentiation in the marketplace and enabling a really cool feature likely to stimulate sales.

The iSlate, iPad, Canvas, or whatever the Apple tablet is to be called, may have answers for all of the issues that likely prevent a front-facing camera in the iPhone. The device will almost certainly cost more than the iPhone to produce, driven primarily by a larger screen and form factor. Higher costs could provide ample margin even when including a second camera. There probably won’t be an earpiece, which also eliminates the need for a proximity sensor, at least in this location, so there is room for the front-facing camera even if the tablet is essentially a large iPhone in terms of hardware design. Imagine simply replacing the earpiece with the camera and mics atop a MacBook display, and voi la, instant video conferencing.

It’s quite possible, however, that a front-facing camera on a tablet computer from Apple won’t actually add to its cost. If you really think about it, the rear-facing camera may not even be necessary. How easy would it be to hold what is expected to be a roughly 10″ widescreen iPhone and still touch the display or home button to snap a photo? Could you hold it steady? Because if not, all your pictures will be blurry. Plus, if the primary purpose of the tablet’s design is as a digital media device for the home, your likely to have your iPhones or digital cameras handy for taking pictures. A single camera above the display doesn’t add cost or design complexity if the rear-facing camera is eliminated.

A touch-based iChat experience has tremendous potential value. In our household, video conferencing via our MacBooks is far from an ideal experience. We don’t have dedicated office space and have struggled to find a good location in our house. Our 3-year old has a tendency to play with the keyboard and trackpad. And on occasion, we have carried the laptop around the house to show off new artwork or furniture, or to follow our daughter while she gives her grandparents a tour of the house. Intuitively, all of these issues might be addressed by a tablet with iChat. We could more comfortably be anywhere in the house while chatting, there wouldn’t be any keys to entice young fingers in a full-screen chat, and it might be easier to become a roving reporter with a slate-style form factor as opposed to the clamshell design of laptops.

Still, a host of issues arise, so iChat on the iSlate is not a slam dunk. For example, one would naturally expect the tablet to display apps and content in both landscape and portrait mode. Where do you put the camera so that if you rotate the tablet, your hand doesn’t cover it up? If you put it top center of the long edge and choose to use it in portrait mode, you can only hold it on one side. In this case, will it support both left and right-handed users, allowing the short edge to be both up or down? The content on the iPhone display doesn’t currently rotate 360 degrees; the contents rotate for the top and both sides, but not the bottom. Additionally, would Apple open the feature’s APIs to third-party developers so that services like Skype can also work on the device, or will they pull a “Google Voice” and disallow these programs?

What We’ll Actually See

I do think the Apple tablet will include a front-facing webcam and touch-based iChat software for a variety of reasons. I think that while Apple will primarily position the tablet as a digital media device, it will also position it as a new home appliance. iChat will fit perfectly in this paradigm. I think it has a certain wow factor that is well within Apple’s grasp; they’ve already implemented the solution in myriad devices, but it will seem like a brand new experience on the tablet with a new touch interface. The camera will indeed be top center when it is held in landscape mode, just imagine a MacBook Air with the display ripped off. The software will still not rotate 360 degrees, because despite a minimalist hardware design, the iPhone and soon-to-be-announced tablet benefit from having a top and a bottom. It will be possible to easily hold and balance the tablet with one hand just below and on the same side as the camera, when necessary.

7 Responses to “7 for 7: A Front-Mounted Web Cam”

  1. MacBooks have long needed a webcam that would rotate inside to do triple duty: for iChat, or (rotated 90 degrees) for privacy, or (rotated another 90 degrees) for recording a speaker or use as a camera. Apple could do the same with this iPad.

  2. Don’t apple have a patent for a camera behind the touch screen? I’m sure I remember reading that a few years ago. Then rotating wouldn’t be an issue, not problems with where your hands are at least…

  3. That’s one of those margin calls. Mobile providers are in no way shape or form ready for video calling in the U.S. and the feature will be seen as a failure by most if it’s only usable over WiFi. I think the 1st gen tablet will not have a camera for this reason.