Last week, Apple's announcement of the iPhone 4 with FaceTime video calling capabilities brought the videophone back to the forefront of the media's attention. Steve Jobs' keynote made it sound like FaceTime will bring video phone calls to consumers for the first time. But the idea of a two-way communications device that transmits pictures as well as sound is as old as the phone itself.
Economic factors have kept it out of the average consumer's reach until the last few decades, and the public has repeatedly greeted the concept-in stand-alone form, at least-with apathy. Still, inventors and dreamers keep coming back to the notion that the videophone is the way of the future.
Let's take a stroll through videophone history to find out where things went wrong-and right-and how we got to the iPhone 4 and its rivals.
Shortly after Alexander Graham Bell's famous 1876 conversation, the telephone caught the public's imagination, and it wasn't long before people (including Bell himself) were speculating on how to transmit images as well as sound. Seen here are two illustrations of early videophone concepts. On the left is an 1878 illustration by George du Maurier published in Punch's Almanack. To the right is a 1910 French card envisioning a visual telephone in the year 2000.
The Prototype Era
AT&T began experimenting with a video telephone as early as 1927. Its famous Bell Laboratories developed the 1956 "Picture-Phone" prototype seen in the upper left. It transmitted pictures in trials from New York to Los Angeles, sending out one b&w picture every two seconds. It required a line for video reception, one for video transmission, and one for audio. At the lower left is a "picture phone" prototype at Bell Labs circa 1961. The camera is the circle to the left of the screen.
Right: The U.S. Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, N.J. developed this "television phone booth" in 1951.
Photos: Popular Science/Time
The Picturephone I
This Bell System Picturephone premiered with great fanfare at the 1964 World's Fair in New York. Like earlier prototypes, the Picturephone required special wiring to work, so it wasn't compatible with the existing telephone network at large. AT&T did its best to drum up hype for its futuristic phone, even staging a call between Lady Bird Johnson in Washington DC and Bell Labs in NY. This model entered limited commercial service between Washington, New York, and Chicago that year, but failed to take off. At $16-$27 for a three-minute call (that's $112-$189 in 2010 dollars), it's easy to see why.
The Videophone in Culture
In science fiction, no self-respecting futuristic spaceman would be caught dead without real-time, two-way audio-visual communications. Notable fictional appearances of the videophone include Fritz Lang's 1927 silent film Metropolis (upper left); The Jetsons, first broadcast in 1962 (upper right); and in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Jetsons' videophone in particular resonated with viewers through the decades.
The Picturephone II
Public polls after the first Picturephone launch revealed that consumers weren't thrilled with AT&T's offering for a number of reasons. It was too expensive, the controls were too difficult to operate, the screen was too small, and people just didn't like being observed over the phone. Never content to admit defeat, AT&T tried again in 1970 with the Picturephone II, seen here, which entered commercial service in Pittsburgh. It didn't last long, however, and AT&T went back to the drawing board.
The First Digital Picture Phones
After AT&T's videophone flops in the 1960s and 70s, the company lay low. It would take the 1984 Bell System breakup to bring other companies into the U.S. videophone marketplace. These new devices sent pictures over regular phone lines using conventional modem technology.
Mitsubishi's Visitel LU-500-01 (left) sold for a low $399 in 1988. To send an image, you halted conversation and hit a Send button. 5.5 seconds later, a b&w still picture appeared on the receiver's screen, and the chatter could resume. Sony's 1987 Teleface appeared only in Japan and offered similar capabilities. Both systems were too primitive to catch on.
Photo: Greg Sharko (Popular Science, March 1988)
Well, look who's back. By 1992, AT&T finally realized that an economical, potentially popular videophone must work over its regular phone network without any special connections. With the benefit of digital technology, the AT&T VideoPhone 2500 sent jerky, slightly off-sync color video at ten frames per second over regular phone lines. It was an exciting advance, but a single phone cost $1599.99 ($2,486.19 in 2010 dollars) and you could only call other VideoPhone 2500 owners. Yet another video telephone dropped off the market not long after its debut.
Mid-1990s Desktop Phones
AT&T wasn't the only company in the 1990s to push a color, all-in-one videophone. The MCI Video Phone (right, 1993) also worked over regular phone lines.
It wasn't long before companies began utilizing higher bandwidth ISDN phone lines for their videophone products. The British Telecom Presence (left, 1996) sold for $4,000 and included a 6-inch color LCD screen. Pricey ISDN would not provide the catalyst needed for the videophone's widespread success. It did, however, serve a viable platform for business videoconferencing technology through the 1990s.
Photos: British Telecom / MCI
Enter the Webcam
While highfalutin business executives were hamming it up with their $100,000 ISDN videoconferencing systems, consumers were busy too. In 1994, a small company called Connectix shipped the QuickCam, now considered the first webcam. The first model could only capture a 320-by-240 image at 16 shades of grey - and then only on a Mac-but its $99 price blew the market wide open.
Inventive users combined the QuickCam, the emerging Internet, and videoconferencing software like CU-SeeMe (seen here) to take part in the first Internet video chats in the mid-1990s.
Photos: Logitech/Yvonne Marie Andres
Mobile Video Phones
The 1996 Panasonic prototype on the left was "the world's first cordless videophone" according to Popular Mechanics (awkward crop courtesy of that publication). It sent video at 3-7 frames per second over Japan's PHS and weighed over a pound.
To the right of that is the Kyocera VP-210 (1999), one of the first (if not the first) commercial cellular phones to offer video calling. Then we enter the 3G network era with the Sony Ericsson Z1010 (2003) and the NEC e606 (far right, 2003); both offered color video calling. Despite the availability of video calling on some phones throughout the 2000s, users still didn't consider it an essential feature.
Photos: Panasonic/Kyocera/NEC/ Sony Ericsson
The Video Chat Revolution
Online video chat was booming by the mid 2000s, thanks to cheap color cameras, free software, ubiquitous PCs, and widespread broadband. By 2003, all the major instant messaging clients supported video calling. An array of webcams appeared from vendors like Logitech, Microsoft, and Apple. Skype began offering video in 2005.
Video calling had crept in under the noses of a formerly skittish-to-be-seen populace in a surprising way. A younger generation viewed video chat as a new communications paradigm separate from the traditional concept of the "video telephone." The difference became clear: If you want to talk, use a phone. If you want to video chat, use a webcam.
2000s-era Video IP Phones
While teens were busy connecting to each other through webcams and IM networks, the concept of the dedicated videophone stayed alive. Such devices remained attractive in business circles, where budgets were higher and executives considered face-to-face contact especially important. Companies began manufacturing IP (Internet Protocol) phones for use over IP networks like the Internet.
Here we see a selection of IP phone models, including the Nortel 1535 (lower right, 2007) and the D-Link DVC-3000 (upper left, 2008). By this time, it was clear that consumers were apathetic about dedicated videophones, so none of these devices targeted them.
2010 and Beyond
So is the dedicated videophone dead? As far as the "decidated" part, probably - at least for consumers. But the videophone element? Not at all.
The iPhone 4 (seen here) isn't the only next-generation videosmartphone-it was beaten to market by Sprint's EVO 4G. Both have big touchscreens, front-facing cameras, and software designed to make video calls painless (although the EVO had some initial hiccups). Apple even promises to make FaceTime an open standard to promote interoperability- something badly needed to bring videophones to the mainstream.
Will it finally happen? Only time will tell.
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