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Look who's talking: The birth of the video phone

Jon Turi, @jonturi
09.07.14 in Cameras
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The videophone was always the obvious next step in the evolution of the telephone. It's a concept that has spent decades in development. And when it finally arrived, it looked a bit different than had always been imagined.

Follow along, as we explore the bumpy road that led to those FaceTime and Google Hangout sessions you enjoy on your device of choice today.

The Telephonoscope

The human race has always had a gift for imagination. First we dream it, and then we build it. Alexander Graham Bell's 1876 invention of the telephone seemed to have gotten Thomas Edison's creative juices flowing. As related in this article from 1878, he envisioned a prescient device called the Telephonoscope. It would convey images as well as sound, so that faraway relatives could communicate with their kin.

Image: Punch's Almanack, Public Domain

Can you see me now?

Bell Telephone Laboratories, the research arm of the emerging communications giant, began work on creating an actual "picture-phone" device in the 1920s, with director of television research Dr. Herbert Ives at the helm. A prototype was tested in 1927, with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover transmitting audio and video from Washington, DC, to AT&T's New York office.

Image: Courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center

Hoover on the line

President of AT&T Walter Gifford was at the Bell Labs office in New York to receive Hoover's call. Although both sides could communicate verbally, the video was only a one-way, 18 frames-per-second transmission.

Image: Courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center

Colorful communication

By 1929, those one-way videophone transmissions were upgraded to full color (unlike this photograph).

Image: Courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center

Iconophone

By 1930, Bell Labs had a working model of its two-way videophone, which it called the Iconophone (from Greek, meaning image-sound).

Image: Courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center

Movie magic

In 1927, videophone communication reached the popular consciousness through Fritz Lang's science fiction film Metropolis.

The first publicly operated, two-way picture-phone service in the world began in 1936 and was operated by the German Reichspost (post office). People in Berlin could get in some face time with others in cities like Leipzig until the service was shuttered due to World War II.

World's Fair debut

After decades of development, AT&T had a new Picturephone test system ready in 1956. But it was still a rudimentary device that could only transmit an image once every two seconds. By 1964, however, an improved experimental version had been completed and was ready to be unveiled.

The AT&T Picturephone (Mod 1) was displayed at that year's World's Fair in Queens, New York. It even hosted the first transcontinental video call from the Bell Systems Pavilion to Disneyland in Anaheim, California.

Unfortunately, the public's response to this modern-day marvel in communication was lukewarm. Many found the image quality subpar and the controls confusing. They were also put off by its high price tag.

Image: Courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center

Confravision

While AT&T had been pushing forward with its personal Picturephone systems, the British Post Office (later British Telecom) had been working on its own enterprise solution. Its Confravision studios were set up at branches as early as 1967 to offer a new mode of communication for high-level executives in business and government. Two or three studios could "teleconference" at one time. Confravision was initially limited to two interconnected locations in London, but was soon expanded to other UK and European cities.

Image: BT

The Picturephone launches

Even after less-than-enthusiastic reviews, AT&T continued its trials of the Picturephone, installing booths in New York, Chicago and Washington, DC. Video calls cost around $16 to $27 for a three-minute session. That may seem like chump change until you figure that, adjusted for inflation, it'd cost about $120 to $200 now.

The commercial service was officially launched in 1970, but cost remained a factor. Monthly service fees started at $160 including only 30 minutes of video/talk time. People who used the system actually enjoyed one of its non-video perks: Using a system called APRIS, people could view documents from the company database onscreen.

Image: Courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center

Swedish envy

Ericsson, the Sweden-based electronics and communications maker, was so inspired by the technology being developed at AT&T that it began to invest in its own line of videophone products in the mid-1960s.

Like AT&T's test group, though, users preferred to use the device for sharing documents rather than actual person-to-person video calls. Separate video and audio lines were also required for the system, which added to its already hefty price tag.

Ericsson scrapped the project in 1977, but it seems it hadn't lost the taste for research in the video communications field. In 2012, it bought Telcordia Technologies Inc. (formerly know as Bell Communications Research).

Image: Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson

The videophone future no one wanted

Despite having more than 60 years of research under its belt, AT&T still couldn't successfully market its videophone technology. Bell Communications Research (now divested from AT&T) was developing large-group video communications projects like its Video Window, and even though AT&T had similar office applications, it kept pushing the consumer angle.

In 1992, AT&T launched its VideoPhone 2500. This hybrid device worked over standard phone lines and could make normal audio calls, but also offered full-color video communication with other users. The device was launched with a $1,600 price tag. But by 1993, AT&T was offering $500 discounts. The consumer market, it seems, still wasn't ready to adopt this aging appliance of the "future."

Image: Courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center

Let's get visual

In 1999, Kyocera released what it claimed was the first mobile videophone -- indeed, the inclusion of a camera alone was a feat for the time. It was called the VisualPhone VP-210 and included a built-in, front-facing camera that could transmit and receive video at the rate of about two frames per second.

Image: Morio/Wikimedia

The all-seeing 'i'

Though the Connectix QuickCam arrived in 1994 as one of the first webcams on the market, it took a while for the medium to be adopted for video communication. Apple's 2003 iSight external camera and the addition of A/V capabilities to iChat helped bring video interaction to the masses and paved the way for rich applications like FaceTime and Skype (which was also launched in 2003).

Image: Apple via Amazon

A premium video suite for suits

Even though video chats had finally arrived on-the-cheap, the real money lay in the government and corporate sectors. When 2006 rolled around, expensive and complex systems like Cisco's TelePresence 3000 (a partnership with AT&T) and Polycom's RPX-400 series hit the scene. They offered high-definition video communication in custom-designed meeting rooms, along with perks like individual workstation displays for sharing documents. These room-within-a-room environments, however, required a lot of gear and a big checkbook, with installation costs upwards of $300,000.

Image: Polycom

Turn on, tune in and talk it out

In 2010, Cisco had the celebrity assistance of Ellen Page to help advertise its Umi line of consumer telepresence devices. The public still wasn't sold on talking to people on their TVs, though, and the company discontinued the Umi line in 2013.

Talking heads

With the rise of fun, fast-paced and flexible workspaces, who wants to install an entire room full of gear? Especially when it would displace a perfectly good foosball table. Collaborating with long-distance coworkers, however, is still a necessity, so it's only fitting that the intelligent-robot makers at iRobot would team up with the enterprise network folks at Cisco to create the Ava 500.

This telepresence robot allows workers to keep in touch with far-off associates, and also roam the halls like a technological ghost. These video robots don't come cheap though: They cost about $70,000 a pop.

Image: iRobot, Cisco

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