We may not have jetpacks for commuting yet, but in many ways, we do indeed live in the future. We carry around more computing power in our pockets than the Eagle had on board when it landed on the moon. And the things we can do with that computing power is straight out of the science fiction of 30 – even 20 – years ago.
Which is why I’m a little confused as to how little excitement Apple’s FaceTime has actually generated. Yeah, I know: it’s just an implementation of VOIP with video, something Skype and iChat have been able to do for years, and that has even been possible on phones for a while. But it’s the best implementation of that technology brought to a highly ubiquitous platform to date, and it’s free (or, it doesn’t cost any more than your original hardware purchase and your monthly internet plan). I was really excited to have a chance to try it when it was announced as a major new feature.
But sadly, my upgrade cycle for the iPhone is out of sync with the iPhone 4 hardware update, so I was going to have to wait to really play with FaceTime until next year. Until Apple contacted GeekDad and loaned me one.
FaceTime works really, really well. The picture is crisp (especially on the new screen), sound is great, and there are no jaggy compression artifacts in the video. It just does what it was meant to do. But after a few calls, it got me to thinking — besides just straight video calling, how else could we use FaceTime to make it feel like we really do live in the future? Here are some ideas:
- Play D&D via FaceTime: videoconferencing and telepresence have undoubtedly already been used for playing the world’s favorite role-playing game, but it can be tough to set up around the kitchen table. However, having a remote player call in via FaceTime (because it’s VOIP, the call doesn’t cost anything), while not as good as actually being there, could work very well. The DM could keep the main camera focused on the map, and then speak directly to the remote player by switching to the front-facing camera when needed. The player could roll their dice on camera to keep everything above-board.
- Use FaceTime as a baby monitor: Good quality video baby monitor systems are pretty pricey, and very often the radios in them will pick up cordless phone chatter from elsewhere in your neighborhood. Why not put your charging dock in the nursery and your mate’s dock on a nightstand in your room, and keep a FaceTime call going all night over your home wi-fi?
- Create a periscope for your kids: when I was young, my dad built me a periscope using two small mirrors and a old cardboard tube. Well, for a lot more money and no lesson in reflection, you could do the same with a couple of iPhones running FaceTime. Yeah, kind of silly. On the other hand, there might be a fun afternoon had by mounting one camera on an R/C car and piloting it around the house using the PoV from the other phone.
- Set up two friends on the safest blind date ever: You’d need to either be in the room with one of them or have two iPhones and point them at each other, and it wouldn’t exactly be a traditional date. But two people could meet and talk with each other without either one of them needing to have the slightest idea how to contact the other, so nobody needs to worry if it doesn’t work out.
- Have a quick consultation with a doctor or nurse: You don’t need to describe your kid’s rash to the pediatrician on the phone — you can show it to him/her. Worried that the mole on your forehead might be early-stage melanoma? Save yourself a trip and get your dermatologist to take a quick peek at it.
- Conduct an awesome experiment: Get everyone you know who has an iPhone 4 together, and everyone they know, until you have at least ten of them, and an even number is essential. Set them up in pairs talking with each other using FaceTime, and set each one to use the back camera instead of the front one. Now balance each of them on its bottom, back to front, in as close to a circle as you can get, with members of each pair across the circle from each other. Will it create a portal to another dimension? Would each screen show an infinite progression of iPhones? I’m not quite sure, honestly. Now take one of the phones out of the circle and point it at something — watch as the image hits each phone. Revel in the awesome geekiness of it all.
- Has your car been making strange noises? Do you need to check the undercarriage, but don’t want to get out the jack and really don’t want to crawl underneath? Well, put a worklight and your mate’s iPhone on a dolly or even a piece of cardboard, start a FaceTime call with your phone, and push the first one under the car to check things out.
There are probably plenty more (slightly silly) ways to use Facetime, but that just means it really is a useful tool. If you have an idea (SFW, please!), leave it in the comments.