Where the iPhone Camera Needs to Focus Next

We need better ways to feel present on video calls — and that means eye contact

Photo: Leon Neal/Getty

UUnless you’ve lived under a rock the past month, there was no way to avoid seeing the photos taken on the new iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro. They’re impressive, to say the least, yet I’m still left feeling like they could be so much more.

As the cameras on our smartphones keep getting better and better, I wonder if the outcomes they serve are truly improving? Particularly when it comes to the bane of modern office life: video calls.

Video calls, like FaceTime, are taking over how we communicate with one another. In fact, WhatsApp released a report in 2017 stating that their users make a staggering 55 million video calls per day along with a total of over 340 million video calling minutes per day. Facebook Messenger released similarly massive numbers sharing that 17 billion video chats were made in 2017 alone. Those numbers are probably much larger now and even more impressive when you think of all of the various video calling tools out there, like FaceTime, Duo, Google Hangout, and others.

It’s been proven that eye contact produces a powerful, subconscious sense of connection that extends even to drawn or photographed eyes.

My family maintains our connections through video calling: my kids calling their grandparents; me calling my wife for visual feedback in the grocery store; catching up with an old friend; holding meetings at work; and so many other things are all done through video calling.

I want better quality photos as much as anyone else, but if I had to choose between superior photography or superior video calling, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose video calling.

Even with the increasing role that video calls serve today, and the innovation of camera technology, smartphone makers are not focusing nearly enough on improving the quality of presence as they could be. I’m talking about features that don’t merely improve the color and quality of images, but help make those images meaningful. And eye contact, in particular, is an area where great strides could be made in improving video communication.

Eye contact provides another level of connection, a human one, that conveys more than speech and written text. But actual eye contact in video calling just doesn’t work.

It’s been proven that eye contact produces a powerful, subconscious sense of connection that extends even to drawn or photographed eyes. Researchers at Cornell University manipulated the gaze of the cartoon rabbit on several Trix cereal boxes and then asked a panel of adults to choose one. They discovered, as expected, that the box most frequently chosen was the one on which the rabbit was looking directly at the study subjects, rather than looking away from them. This was a cartoon rabbit. Imagine how much more impactful eye contact is in everyday human conversations.

As our cameras improve, we should demand more.

But don’t just take my word for it — giants like Apple are starting to realize how important it is, too. In iOS 13, Apple released a feature called “FaceTime Attention Correction” that uses image manipulation to automatically alter our gaze.

It’s a neat trick, but we still don’t know how much it’ll help or how well it will work.

It’s no surprise, then, that Attention Correction is a setting you need to turn on manually. At the very least, it’s a step in the right direction.

As our cameras improve, we should demand more from technology. We should ask for devices and features, both in software and hardware, that help us connect in more meaningful ways, beyond just picture quality. The tech industry should focus on improving eye contact in video calls, along with other ways of using cameras to feel present. And it’s on us to ask for these improvements, with our voices and also our dollars.

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