Today, with apps and services like Zoom, Skype and FaceTime, video phone calls are cheap, easy, and readily available on PCs and smartphones. A long-term vision that began a long time ago. Here's the story of how it happened.
Pandemic permitting, video telephony still remains only a small part of the total call volume. There are many reasons, perhaps most people don't always want to be seen on a call. However, the new services perhaps mark the ultimate success of a long-held vision: that one day all phone calls would have video as well as audio. Many decades before Zoom. This is the story of Picturephone.
Picturephone, the progenitor of Zoom
AT & T's Picturephone was unveiled as a futuristic demonstration at the New York Universal Exposition in 1964. A relatively long silence followed, then was offered commercially in Pittsburgh and Chicago in 1970, until it was retired a few years later. But the story of Zoom's ancestor was born long, long ago: la Bell Labs (AT&T Research and Development Division) held a well publicized demonstration at its New York office in April 1927. The centerpiece of the event was a conversation between the United States Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in Washington and the president of AT&T Walter Gifford in New York.
Hoover's moving image was viewed at a resolution of 50 lines by both Gifford and the invited audience. Further demonstrations followed in 1930, but the electromechanical system used proved to be a dead end. The war then did the rest.
Bell Labs only resumed research on videophones in 1956. And from this work came the debut I was talking about, in April 1964.
The debut of the Picturephone at the New York Expo and subsequent attempts
A series of eight Picturephone booths allowed visitors to make video calls. They generally conversed with visitors to adjacent booths, or a similar booth located at Disneyland California. It was a very popular booth: Bell Labs interviewed over seven hundred of the large number of visitors: yet only 50% of them considered viewing in a phone call important.
At a later stage, two months later AT&T opened Picturephone public rooms in New York, Chicago and Washington. You could rent a "couple" of cabins at rates from 16 to 27 dollars for the first 3 minutes of conversation. From 130 to 600 euros today. In the next six months only 71 calls were made, and then the number was reduced until 1970. In the last year the number of calls was ZERO.
Despite these setbacks AT&T did not give up, choosing to focus on the positive reactions of Expo 1964. In the following years, he improved the Picturephone. The new device, known as the Picturephone MOD II, was a technological tour de force. It had an innovative silicon photodiode array camera, a zoom lens, and some graphics capabilities. Zoom's new grandfather had a 5,25 x 5 inch screen, suitable for showing a single person. A full motion black and white image with a resolution of 250 lines and 30 fps gave the opportunity to focus on the speaker or a document placed in front of the unit. The sound was provided by a tone speaker. The new Picturephone required three pairs of twisted copper wires to function.
Story of a giant
AT&T had been driven for over 50 years by a well-known corporate mission: to reach all of the United States by phone. A mission accomplished in 1969, when more than 90% of American families had a telephone at home. Many then said to themselves that the next step would be universal video telephony. A logical step, right? Thus, in its 1969 annual report, AT&T (pre) said with certainty: "With about one million sets in use, the Picturephone service will earn a billion dollars by 1980." The next year's report predicted 50.000 installations in 25 cities by 1975. A press release a year later predicted a million installations by 1980. Director Stanley Kubrick sent a team to Bell Labs to study the future of telephony.
The result? The inclusion of a Picturephone booth in “2001 A Space Odyssey”.
Large-scale (re) launch
With great confidence, AT&T introduced the Picturephone commercial service in Pittsburgh on July 1970, 160. Initially, Zoom's grandfather's attention was focused on large corporate customers, as the service was expensive - $ XNUMX a month for equipment and service. , and the first thirty minutes of calls. Additional calls were $ 0,25 per minute. At the current exchange rate it is 860 euros per month, with 1.50 euros per minute of calls over the first half hour: a service clearly intended for those who could afford it. The following year Picturephone expanded to Chicago. The devices could also transmit documents and graphics, although limited by the resolution of 250 lines.
Again no customers were found. In 1972, Pittsburgh peaked at 32 installations. In Chicago, AT&T reduced the price to $ 75 per month for the service and the first forty-five minutes of calls to try to stimulate demand. At the current exchange rate it is 475 euros per month. In early 1973, the peak was 453 installations. That year AT&T appointed a new CEO, John de Butts. And the first thing he did was pull the plug.
Why didn't Picturephone work?
There were many reasons.
The first it is the chicken and egg problem that afflicts all new network technologies: a Picturephone is only useful if the person you want to contact has one. A new technology needs a niche group of enthusiasts to support it in these early years. And the Picturephone did not find such a group. The second one was the cost: excessive even for targeted corporate markets.
Most new technologies are expensive at first, but then drop in price. AT&T was confident that costs would decrease over time with the imminent use of digital technologies, but Picturephone didn't last that long.
The following years up to Zoom
Video telephony still seemed like such an obvious extension of telephone service, that there were other attempts even after the Picturephone failed. AT&T itself also introduced a color video phone in 1992, the AT&T 2500. Using data compression technologies, it offered a small color image over standard telephone lines. Although sold in pairs and marketed to show grandparents their distant grandchildren, it didn't find a market.
Other companies tried in the 90s and early 2000s, failing. Of course, the rise of Internet has kept the promises of the Picturephone only in the 21st century: video telephony is available (if not required) and photos, documents, graphics and information are shared globally. It took a pandemic for its final explosion, with Zoom and the other platforms. And the social Clubhouse shows how there is a large "niche" of people who still prefer the voice alone.