Video Telephony, Then and Now


This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2714, 2009-04-03, as the cover article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 8-11) and their website.

In most if not all realms of human endeavor, communication is a key to success. Human history is replete with examples that illustrate the truth of this principle, in all fields, including business, warfare, and governance. Consider only three examples: Years before the competition, Wal-Mart implemented a sales data distribution system whereby every single purchase at a cash register would be communicated to decision-makers managing inventory and orders, allowing Wal-Mart to outmaneuver Kmart with every shift in consumer trends. During World War II, the Allies' ability to decrypt and read the encoded military communications of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, proved instrumental in winning pivotal battles and reducing our losses. Lincoln was the first American President to make extensive use of the telegraph to communicate with his distant subordinates, thereby projecting his power to an unprecedented extent.

But despite the importance of communication, technical innovations in this area are not always recognized for their potential, and more often than not are adopted at a slow pace — which can be incomprehensible to those of us in the modern era who cannot imagine life without forms of instant communication such as telephone, radio, television, and e-mail. This can be especially true for technologies that attempt to combine communication methods into something new. It is almost as if the resistance to adopting each individual technology is not overlaid or added together, but multiplied.

An excellent example of this is video telephony, which combines audio and video communication, i.e., telephony plus television, except the video stream is transmitted in two directions — hence the term "duplex transmission". (When the number of participants is greater than two, then it is referred to as videoconferencing.) As we shall see, adoption of video telephony in the marketplace was far slower and more faltering than that of telephones or televisions.

That Old-Time Telephony

Given that the telephone first saw non-experimental use in the 1890s, and television first saw commercial use in the 1930s, one would think that by the late 1930s, the public would be clamoring for the ability to not only hear the voices of distant loved ones and business associates, but also to be able to see their faces — in addition to transmitting their own visages in conjunction with their voices. After all, we are frequently told by psychologists that body language comprises the bulk of communication among people, and facial expressions are the most significant part of body language. By that reasoning, the first half of "video telephony" should be the most important component. Clearly the potential for such a type of communication was not lost on the purveyors of popular culture, as evidenced by video phones making appearances in comic strips (Dick Tracy's "2-Way Wrist TV", from 1964), movies (2001: A Space Odyssey, from 1968), and cartoons (Plane Daffy, from 1944). Fritz Lang's 1927 silent movie Metropolis, which was groundbreaking in several respects, contains perhaps the first well-known cultural reference to a videophone.

Moreover, it is not as though there were unsurmountable technical hurdles. Even before World War II, two separate postal services, England's General Post Office and Germany's Reichspost, had made available public video telephony services. In Germany, anyone who wished to use the system could go to a special public telephone booth, although they did have to reside in one of the four major cities of the time: Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, and Nuremberg. The world war understandably interrupted this pioneering video telephony service, especially in Germany, whose major cities and other telecommunications infrastructure were devastated by aerial bombing.

Despite our technological leadership after the war, the United States did not see much progress or interest in video telephony until the early 1960s, when AT&T introduced the Picturephone, which was the name for the product and the service. The device was placed on top of a desk, and had a small oval cabinet, housing an even smaller cathode ray tube (CRT) display, above which was a video camera to capture the image of the user. The video quality itself was rather poor, with horizontal and vertical scan rates of 8 kHz and 30 hertz, respectively. It offered approximately 250 scan lines, which was significantly less than the 440 achieved by the Germans more than a quarter-century earlier, most likely due to a desire to make the units small enough for desktop use, unlike the ones in the German phone booths.

By 1970, the Picturephone had installations in several large cities in the eastern United States, including the offices of some major corporations, such as Westinghouse, in Pittsburgh. Subscribers were charged about $90 per month, which at that time was a nontrivial amount of money. Hundreds of students attended technical schools in order to learn how to install, operate, and troubleshoot the Picturephone's equipment. Apparently the total number of subscribers peaked at roughly 500, and began to decline, until it was terminated in 1974. AT&T made a second go of it in 1992, offering its VideoPhone 2500. But at a starting price of $1500, it saw little adoption by the public. Another possible factor — far more applicable to prospective users in the home than the corporate environment — is that many people, perhaps subconsciously, would prefer being able to call other people and businesses without having to get gussied up beforehand. Undoubtedly, one advantage to regular phones is that you can be busy in any part of the house (even the bathroom), make or receive a call, and not be concerned with whether you look your best or instead look like something the cat decided not to drag in.

In light of its less-than-stellar beginnings, video telephony appeared to be destined as a technological novelty that would never take hold, except in the movies and other forms of fictional entertainment. But as sometimes happens with ideas that get the front door slammed in their faces, video telephony quietly slipped in the back door. In this case, it came in riding on the coattails of two much younger communications ideas — mobile phones and VoIP.

Cell Me Your Picture

A growing number of cell phones and other mobile voice-enabled devices have built-in video cameras. Many of these products are already part of the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (also known as 3GSM), which is a third-generation (3G) mobile telecommunications technology, and will likely become the basis of the fourth-generation (4G). This gives them the capability of being used as mobile video phones, and they are quite popular. The potential market is huge, and shows no sign of diminishing, with more than 130 million subscribers even by mid-2007.

The year 2003 saw the introduction of several video cell phones, which were capable of capturing still and moving pictures, and, in turn, making possible two-way video calls. Samsung Electronics, frequently one of the first to roll out new technologies, began manufacturing and distributing several new versions of high-end video cell phones — though initially just in the South Korean market. The handsets, designated SCH-V310, had video sensors that recorded at 11 frames per second, which was a huge improvement over the 2 frames per second seen in even earlier video cell phones — but still about half the frame rate of camcorders at the time. Yet the quintupling of speed dramatically improved the user experience, and did away with much of the jerkiness of slower frame rates.

In terms of any financial barriers to market penetration, video cell phones have come way down in price, and this has undoubtedly boosted their proliferation. For instance, that Samsung handheld started out at around $600, while street prices for even more capable products, six years later, have now dipped well below $100. But that is not to say that all cell phone service providers have joined the bandwagon. Even though more than 90 percent of American adults have some sort of cell phone service, the major carriers have made little progress in offering video as part of the package — citing a lack of cell phones that have built-in video sensors. Yet that may change rapidly, because 2008 saw a sizable increase in consumer demand for mobile video.

Telephoning Over the Tubes

Inexpensive and easy-to-operate Webcams have made it possible for people to do video telephony over the Internet. This is usually done as part of a dedicated Webcam communications service, or as part of a voice over IP (VoIP) service, such as Skype. Each party has a Webcam and either a hand-held microphone or headset, connected to their computer. While the Webcam and the microphone are picking up and transmitting the video and audio feeds from a user, over the Internet, he is watching the video feed from the other person's Webcam, and listening to her voice over computer speakers or in the speakers integrated into his headset.

The quality of the Webcam picture is largely determined by the same factors that affect the voice quality of VoIP services. The number one factor is the Internet connection speed of each participant's computer, since the audio and video data must be transmitted over the VoIP connection to the other person's computer. Consequently, broadband Internet connectivity (either DSL or cable) will yield far superior results than narrowband (usually dial-up), since the data upload and download speeds are so much faster for that first category.

If you would like to try video over the Internet without having to make any initial monetary outlay (aside from the cost of a Webcam, if you don't already have one), try Skype's video feature. The picture quality and image size are quite good, and getting better with each iteration of their software and their infrastructure. They currently offer free two-way voice and video between any two Skype users, each on their own computer. Also, you can use Skype's paid service to call someone's cell phone or landline. But being able to do two-way video to someone's cell phone, is probably further down the road.

One day, we all may have our own Dick Tracy wrist videophones. But at our current rate of progress, it could be a long time before we see widespread adoption. In the meantime, see what your favorite VoIP service has to offer.

Copyright © 2009 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

Content topics: