Even in the virtual space of the Internet, there's just no substitute for being there. Frustrated callers and tech support people who take up to 40 minutes to thrash out how to plug in a new cable television device can tell you that.
New video technology that aims to bring far-flung computer users together in the same virtual rooms could be changing things. Companies are lining up behind the technology to better serve customers, a focus that takes on new importance for struggling e-tailers.
But while seeing a human face or giving a distant techie the same glimpse of a persistent error message has great appeal on a human level, it's unclear whether such services are economical.
One company trying to overcome the Internet's virtual limits and enable helpdesk workers to look through the frustrated eyes of computer users is Expertcity.com, which lets users find experts to help them solve computer problems. The technology enables the helpers to see the same screen the user sees, and control the mouse and keyboard functions of the distant user.
Serving individual customers at first, Expertcity has started to license its technology to businesses and recently began doing contract work, said company President Andreas von Blottnitz. It is now expanding onto the Linux, Mac and Solaris platforms.
Human psychology is pushing the technology, von Blottnitz said. "The thing is, the consumer doesn't have the patience or willingness or knowledge. They just really want to talk to a real person," he said.
The business side is less clear, but preliminary results are encouraging to Cox Communications. It set up an Expertcity help service for 77,000 cable Internet customers in Omaha, Neb., and San Diego.
"Customer reaction is excellent. There's still a high, very cool factor to this," said Suzanne Foy, director of customer service technologies at Cox. The service has resolved 88 percent of customer problems on first calls, but Cox won't know until later this year whether it saves more money than it costs.
Another company, Eyeball.com Network, was expected today, Aug. 21, to announce that it will be selling new video software Oct. 25. The software is designed to overcome some of the problems associated with video streaming. "Psychologists will tell you 7 percent [of human interaction] is the words you use. The rest is tone of voice, body language and facial expression," said Chris Piche, chairman and chief executive of Eyeball. Eyeball uses a patent-pending code to adjust its video bitstream according to the sending and receiving software and hardware, as well as network congestion. It also lets users choose which should be given priority: audio quality, frame rate or image size; video quality is dynamically optimized based on available network bandwidth and processor power, according to the company.
For all the excitement, though, it may take time to adopt such gee-whiz technology, unless there is "a clear demonstration that this assists conducting business," said Scott Prescott at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.