The dream of the videophone

It is not easy to predict what technology will prevail in the future. Not even within just a few years ahead. In order to improve predictions of future technology, it is a good idea to pay attention to the successes and failures of the past. Once a technology has become well established, it seems perfectly natural. It often seems that technical development follows a linear curve, whereby technical success stories succeed each other in a process of continuous improvement. History also includes a large number of “failures.” The videophone is an example. This says a great deal about the technological optimism of the 1960s and 1970s. This confidence is reflected in the science fiction literature and films of the period – for example, Stanley Kubrick’s visionary feature film, 2001.

Today, videophones are used in various contexts. Companies and organizations use them in videoconferencing. Some physicians use them to diagnose patients, in “telemedicine.” Some companies even try to sell audiovisual equipment that can be used with ordinary personal computers, and that deliver sound and images directly by modem. However, even though image quality has improved and the cost of use has fallen since the 1970s the technology is not widely used. In this case, technological optimism was not justified.

The earliest attempts in video telephony were carried out as early as the 1920s in the U.S. There were many technical impediments to a successful system, however. It was either a question of laying new cables, or sending images by satellite. Both options were expensive. The first large-scale test system was not produced until 1956. Image quality was poor, and the system could only manage to transmit one image every other second.

A more complete system was completed in 1964 and made available to be tested by the public in two related exhibitions – the first being the World Exhibition in New York and the second being the Disneyland amusement park in California. At both places, users were carefully interviewed to see whether the system was commercially viable. It turned out, however, that it was not. People simply did not like the videophone. They felt the picture was small and unclear, and the equipment too awkward. The device was too obtrusive as well, it intruded too much on people’s private space. That was possibly the root of the greatest obstacles to its success. The social problems were more difficult to overcome than the financial problems.

However, at Bell in the U.S., people were convinced that this was the wave of the future. In 1970, a system was installed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for commercial use and it was generally expected that it would be highly successful. It was predicted that the system would attract as many as one million users during its first ten years. Wealthy people invested in the new technology – not enough of them, however, to cause the new communications system to become a lasting success.

Facts
The first prototype was funded by the American Bell Laboratories company. In 1927, amid much pomp and circumstance, president-elect Herbert Hoover, in Washington, spoke to and saw the head of the AT&T telephone company, in New Jersey, via a videophone.

Author: Petra Jonvallen

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