Google Duo Is Great, But Video Chat Is Still Super Awkward
My phone buzzes as a call comes in. I don’t recognize the number, but that’s normal. What’s weird is it’s a video call, from someone using Duo, Google’s video chat app available today for iOS and Android. I probably know this person, because they’d need my number to make the call. So it’s almost definitely not a nude stranger.
I take a sec to check my hair, ensure I don’t have food in my teeth, and position the camera to avoid filling the frame with chins. By the time I’m ready to take the call, I’ve missed it by a long shot.
After using Duo for about a week, I can say it is among the best video-chat apps around. Google’s clever back-end work lets you switch from Wi-Fi to cellular with just a brief stutter. It’s as stable as any video chat I’ve used, even on crappy connections.
The best thing about Duo is its simplicity. If you’ve ever tried video chat, you know the pain of diagnosing connection problems, determining usernames, and figuring out how the app works. With Duo, all you do is call the person from the app. If that person has the app, the call goes through. If not, you can invite them to Duo.
If you’re on iOS, you get a push notification that someone’s calling. It vibrates incessantly until you address it. On Android, Duo calls come through like phone calls, ringing loudly and taking over the screen. If the person in your phone book, the Knock Knock feature provides live video before you pick up. (the Duo ad does a great job showing you all the cool things you can do with Knock Knock, but mostly I use it to make sure everyone’s clothed.) Swipe up to answer, and you’re on the call. You can flip the camera, or mute your microphone. Turn the screen off and it becomes a voice call. Turn it back on and video should return, too— though it doesn’t always cooperate.
You can use Duo to call anyone, but it seems designed largely for calling the same people over and over. Place a new call and the app offers two options: re-dial one of your most recent calls, or start a new one. If you have a Broad City-style bff you call anytime without worrying about whether you’re in bed, having sex, or on the toilet, it’s perfect. Just tap their pic on the homescreen and launch right back into it. Duo is the fastest thing since walkie-talkies. In many ways, Duo is like Apple’s FaceTime, but for all platforms.
The problem isn’t the app so much as chatting on camera. Video calling has been the next big thing in communication for two decades, and a staple of science fiction for far longer. But it hasn’t caught on. Even now, when the tech is good enough and everyone carries Internet-connected cameras, it’s hardly the first thing you think to do.
Video conferencing is useful at work, and Skype and FaceTime are great ways to keep up with far-off loved ones. But, really, video calling is lame. The logistics alone are a nightmare. How do you hold the phone far enough from your face to avoid looking terrifying yet close enough to avoid yelling to be heard? How do you avoid moving the camera? What do you say to end the call? And what are you supposed to look at?
No, seriously: What are you supposed to look at? You can look into the camera and almost convincingly fake eye contact, but then you don’t see the other person—and if she’s also looking into the camera, you might as well not have cameras on. You can look at his face, but then it’s like you’re sheepishly avoiding his gaze. Or you can do what I do: Watch the small thumbnail of yourself.
I used to play videogames during phone calls, and texting while watching TV is standard for anyone with a phone and a TV. But video chatting demands undivided attention, lest you appear rude. Etiquette guides, pro tips, and unwritten rules govern the interaction. Video also isn’t conducive to modern communication. Everyone texts, usually with emoji and GIFs and little punctuation. This back-and-forth is ever quicker, easier, and interactive, not appointment-based and long-lasting. In that way, video calling feels old-school before it’s ever even cool.
Even if everyone decides to get down with video calling, Google needs to get tons of people to download the app if it is to become part of the world’s messaging lexicon. Almost everyone already has a video-chatting app, be it it Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, Skype, Viber, FaceTime, or even Google’s own Hangouts. It’s hard to imagine millions of people embracing an app that does the same thing those apps do, especially when people don’t do that thing much anyway.
I like Duo. Once Google fixes its few bugs, it will be everything a video chat app should be. I’ll probably cajole my girlfriend into using it, because she’s the only person I video chat with and Duo is easier than Skype. For a startup, that might be enough. But Google prides itself on tackling big problems with big solutions with the potential for big scale. Duo is Google’s attempt to make video calling happen. I don’t think it’s going to happen.
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