Picture phone makes debut

Posted: Thursday, August 31, 2000

NEW YORK -- The picture phone is coming. Again.

It's been decades since AT&T wowed the crowds at the 1964 World's Fair with the promise of a new telephone that would let people see one another when they made a call.

The Picturephone never caught on, but the fascination has endured. Much like the parade of ill-fated contraptions that preceded the first airplane, new renditions of the Picturephone have littered the years, ever inspired by the presumption that people have the same instinctive desire to make eye contact on the phone as they do in person.

''People have been thinking about this for at least 70 years,'' said Sheldon Hochheiser, AT&T's official historian. He noted that AT&T even demonstrated a one-way picture phone in 1927 with a call by soon-to-be president Herbert Hoover.

These days, the concept is even being reborn with a wireless twist while gaining new life in the wired world through high-speed Internet connections and desktop computers equipped with video cameras.

But, for much the same reason that past success has been limited to video conferencing for businesses, these latest incarnations may take time to reach widespread use.

The main hurdle remains the fact that the nation's telephone networks, both regular and wireless, were designed to carry voices, not pictures, especially the moving kind.

That's why the Visual Phone, a mobile phone that Kyocera sells in Japan, can only transmit video images at the still-photo speed of 4 frames per second, jumping from freeze-frame to freeze-frame every few seconds.

At the same time, modern interpretations of the Picturephone and ever-cheaper computer cameras like those made by Intel and Logitech still face an obstacle at both ends of every phone call: While the major arteries of today's communications networks have been upgraded with powerful fiber-optic cables, the wiring that reaches into most buildings is still made of copper that was never meant to carry a heavy-duty video signal.

Today, thanks to explosive demand for faster Internet access, billions of dollars are being spent to upgrade telephone lines for DSL (digital subscriber line) service and cable TV systems for high-speed connections.

It will take years, however, to deliver those services nationwide, leaving dial-up phone service as the only option for most people. But even for those who can get DSL and high-speed cable, cost and capacity remain an obstacle.

Equipment and installation for these services can cost more than $200, and the most affordable versions, costing $40 or $50 per month, are designed for downloading from the Internet and may not provide enough power to send a live video signal.

From the beginning, AT&T and other would-be purveyors of video phone service also needed to install special lines to reach a home or business, an expense they too tried to share with would-be customers.

When Picturephone debuted in 1964, prices ranged from $16 to $27 for a three-minute call between special booths AT&T set up in New York, Washington and Chicago.

In 1970, when AT&T launched residential Picturephone service in Pittsburgh and Chicago, customers had to pay about $160 a month, a fee that included the equipment rental and just 30 minutes of calling time. It was 25 cents a minute for extra time.

Thankfully, the Picturephone also doubled as a non-picture phone, since there weren't many people with whom to share the visual calling experience. The most obvious answer was to hook up one Picturephone at home and another at work or a relative's house, doubling the sticker shock.

''Picture phones are only really useful if the person you want to talk to has one at their end,'' said AT&T's Hochheiser.

In the end, fewer than 500 people signed up for Picturephone service by the time the plug was pulled in 1974. The next quarter century brought a stream of similar non-starters, including one by Panasonic and another try by AT&T, the 1992 Videophone.

In all cases, either the price was too high, the quality too poor, or both.

Earlier this year, a company named Talk Visual began advertising a $1,500 video phone that transmits via ISDN, a special phone line that can cost $35 to $100 per month. An Italian company named Aethra makes a higher-end model priced at $3,500.

While still intimidating, those prices are a small fraction of the $10,000 and up charged for the cheapest video conferencing gear only five years ago, said Gene Rosov, chief executive of Talk Visual.

Still, Rosov doesn't expect video calling to become commonplace until people can get the phone for less than $500, maybe for nothing.

In the next year, ''We believe we are going to be able to offer people free video phones with a commitment to sign up for local and long distance service,'' he said, noting that such arrangements were the norm in the telephone industry for decades.

But Rex Mitchell, an industry analyst for BB&T Capital Markets, expects the long-elusive breakthrough to occur through computers rather than a specially designed telephone.

''Many instruments have been invented, risen up, and died. People are willing to pay very little more for a picture and a voice than they are willing to pay for a voice alone. It will only be common when it's extremely cheap,'' said Mitchell. ''With a PC, all you need is a camera, which is getting down to the $60 range. You already have a monitor that's high quality, and you already have a machine to process the bits.''

But even as all the pieces come together, video calling faces one challenge that may prove insurmountable: The telephone has lacked a visual component for so long that it has evolved as a unique form of communication with its own distinct nuances.

Most people drift both mentally and physically as they gab on the phone. Whether it's pacing, doodling, rest or work, it can't be very easy to multitask while staring at a camera. In fact, people may even relish the visual solitude of a phone call.

''It's still not entirely clear that people want to be seen when on the telephone,'' said Hochheiser at AT&T. ''This was not a question that was really studied before the introduction, and it's not a question as far as I know that has ever been answered.''

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