Air Force is testing video telephones at locations both in the United States
and overseas to provide "video morale calls" for deployed members.
"I have never
seen a better morale booster," was the report of one Air Force first
sergeant during a recent test of video telephone technology at Incirlik AB,
The video phone
concept is actually more than four decades old, but new low-cost technologies
are providing the Air Force a rare opportunity to permit families and deployed
airmen to be able to see, as well as talk, to one another.
The idea behind
the video telephone system presently being examined by the Air Force was
succinctly stated in the 1960's print advertisement of Western
Electric-"crossing a telephone with a TV set." The Western Electric
advertisement showed the less-than-successful PicturePhone system which it
produced in cooperation with AT&T's Bell Laboratories.
engineers at Bell Laboratories began discussing the concept of simultaneous
transmission of video and voice over telephone lines in the 1920's.
In 1927, the Bell
Telephone System sent live television images of Herbert Hoover, then Secretary
of Commerce, over telephone lines from Washington, D.C. to an auditorium in
Manhattan, N.Y. This was the first public demonstration in the United States
of long-distance video transmission.
The first "PicturePhone"
was completed by Bell Laboratory engineers in 1956. This first system was
crude and cumbersome and required three standard wire pairs to operate: one
pair to carry the video transmission, one pair to carry video reception, and
the third to carry the audio signal. Requiring 1,000,000 Hertz of bandwidth,
the PicturePhone video signal exceeded by more than 300 times the bandwidth
allotted to a typical telephone voice signal.
By 1964, a
somewhat improved version of the PicturePhone, dubbed the "Mod 1,"
had been developed and was debuted at the New York World's Fair. To test
public reaction to the PicturePhone, visitors were invited to place calls
between special exhibits of the PicturePhone at the World's Fair and
indicated that most people did not like PicturePhone. The controls were
awkward and the picture was small. Moreover, most people were not comfortable
with the idea of being seen during a phone conversation.
system's developers at Bell Laboratories were convinced that PicturePhone was
viable and could find a market. AT&T inaugurated commercial PicturePhone
service between New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., June 24, 1964,
with a call from Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Linden Johnson, in
Washington; to Dr. Elizabeth A. Wood of Bell Laboratories in New York City.
PicturePhone call from Washington to New York City cost $16. The most
expensive connection, between New York City and Chicago, cost $27 for three
minutes. This inaugural PicturePhone service never caught the attention of
to believe in the viability of PicturePhone. With the beginning of commercial
PicturePhone service in Pittsburgh in 1970, AT&T executives predicted that
Picturephones would be in use in more than a million settings by 1980. Their
estimates were far off the mark. Consumers were still not ready for
PicturePhone, finding it too big, too expensive, and, for many, too intrusive.
In January 1992,
AT&T executives again predicted the success of a videophone system with
the introduction of the AT&T VideoPhone 2500-the first full-color, home
video phone system to use standard home telephone lines.
system's debut, Robert Kavner, AT&T group executive for AT&T
Communications Products, said, "This is the way people want to
communicate. The time is right. The price is right. The technology is
executives reported that the video phone would become as popular as cordless
and cellular phones. Yet, a large market has yet to be found.
According to the
calculations of telecommunications author Stephen J. Maudsley, the great
decrease in the cost of video telephones is due to the continued development
of silicon technology. Maudsley reports the cost of a video telephone in the
1960's was nearly $500,000. The AT&T VideoPhone 2500 was introduced in
1992 at a cost of approximately $1500 and within a year was selling for less
than $1000. The video telephone system being tested by the Air Force sells for
about $500 for each unit. This dramatic increase in savings, according to
Maudsley, comes from two areas-the integration of functions and the
compression of images-associated with the continued decrease in the size of
required for video phone operation have been integrated onto fewer pieces of
silicon. This is a direct result of the decrease in the size of component
transistors. During the early period of video telephone development, the
smallest feature on a silicon chip was about 10 microns. Currently, silicon
chips are being manufactured with features as small as .3 microns.
ratios have also improved to increase the rate of image transmission from
PicturePhone's one frame every two seconds to the present state-of-the-art 20
frames per second. By comparison, broadcast television transmits at 30 frames
telephones have taken two distinct venues. Seemingly, the larger share of the
industry was concentrating its efforts in personal computer-based systems, or
desktop video teleconferencing technology, which requires computer networks.
The smaller effort was aimed at the video phone-through-your-television market
which requires no more than a television, a video telephone, and POTS, the
industry acronym for plain old telephone service.
The Air Force is
testing the latter. According to Col. David L. Rakestraw, director of
technology at the Air Force Communications Agency, "because they are so
easy to set up and use, video phones are an excellent way for the Air Force to
add a video dimension to phone calls home."
television-based systems cost no more for line transmission than a standard
on a large scale will finally be attracted to video telephone technology
remains to be seen. The technology does seem to have found a niche among those
Air Force members who have taken part in the Air Force trials.
After seeing and
speaking to his wife in Hawaii from his deployed location in Turkey, SSgt.
Lionel Price remarked, "I have been blessed to take part in this."
Lines - Welcome back, PicturePhone?
by Jim Carroll
This article is Copyright ©
1999 Jim Carroll.
Welcome back, PicturePhone?
It may be freely distributed throughout corporate e-mail systems or other
systems via e-mail, or on non-commercial Web sites, as long as this header
remains intact. This article may not be reprinted for publication in print or
other media without permission of the author, and may not be included in any
other fee based paper or electronic publication or distributed in any other
form as part of a compilation released for a fee, without the permission of
the author. Any other inclusion in a commercial database or other form of
electronic access by a commercial organization constitutes theft, fraud and a
Not only that, it's morally reprehensible!
The telephone probably ranks with television
and the computer as one of the most significant devices of the 20th century -
at least, in terms of its impact on the way we work and play. It's no
surprise, then, that a good many articles have been written to assess the
future of this device.
Most of them were remarkably correct - except
when it came to one potential use they all predicted.
In the 1950s, when computer technology was
first being integrated into telephone networks, all kinds of new possibilities
were presented to the research scientists at organizations such as Bell Labs
and Northern Telecom (formerly known as "Northern Electric" -
Consider the August, 1958, Popular Mechanics
article, "Miracles Ahead on Your Telephone." It suggested that
telephones of the future would include "loudspeakers"
(speakerphones), the ability to send calls automatically to another number
(call forwarding) and a special "talk back" capability to let
callers leave a message (voice mail.) The article also envisioned a
"robot watchdog" linked to your telephone that would call the
police, fire department or other contact should a problem be detected in the
home - today's burglar alarm system.
Such accuracy in prediction was quite typical.
In the mid-1950s, when telephones still used the rotary dial, there were
widespread reports about the "push-button phone of the future."
There were also many articles-- such as the one in Changing Times in May, 1960
("What's Happening with the Telephone") -- predicting the day would
come when most people would be able to dial telephone numbers anywhere in the
world. Keep in mind that this was at a time when many calls, even to someone
down the street, had to go through a switchboard operator. The same article
also forecast that, one day, businesses would use telephones for
"transmitting drawings, blueprints, balance sheets..." (today's fax
machine). It even said that "the ultimate in phones will be the
carry-it-with-you instrument" that could be answered from anywhere - the
All these articles made one further prediction,
and that was the one that gained the most attention - the concept of the
videophone. The otherwise-accurate Changing Times piece said a small TV would
soon be found in the typical telephone, so that "you won't have to guess
who's calling - you'll be able to see for yourself."
The videophone wasn't just a concept.
Demonstration models were built and gained a huge degree of attention. The
1964 World's Fair in New York saw the launch of AT&T's PicturePhone - a
device consisting of a telephone handset and a small, matching TV. Suddenly,
video telephones were to be real, and accessible to everyone.
That is, anyone with a deep pocket. AT&T
first set up the phones in public buildings in New York, Washington and
Chicago, charging people $21 (about U.S.$111 in 1999 dollars) to make a
three-minute PicturePhone call. Soon, the company began to introduce it into
the corporate world. In 1965, BusinessWeek reported on PicturePhone use at
Union Carbide, predicting that company executives were "getting a taste
of communicating the way the majority of executives may be doing it 10 or 15
years from now."
At the time, most people seemed to assume that
broader use was imminent, and they imagined even more sophisticated devices to
come. Science Digest in March, 1965, noted talk of an "ultimate
telephone," the size of a pack of cigarettes, that would carry both voice
and video and could be used anywhere. A cell-phone videophone!
In fact, the PicturePhone died a quick death
soon after its introduction, and video conferencing is still a marginal
activity in the corporate world. Technology companies have struggled for years
to come up with some type of television-based telephone system but the
results, until recently, have been disappointing or very expensive.
The biggest problem is quite simple -- global
telecommunication systems just haven't been equipped to handle the huge
volumes of data that such technology requires. The August, 1958, issue of
Popular Mechanics was bang on when it noted: "one hurdle to practical TV
phones is the amount of electronic information necessary for transmitting
voice and picture..." To a degree, that hurdle is still with us today.
Yes, you can find video-conferencing equipment
in the offices of many major corporations, but it's costly. Many of those
companies have spent upwards of $15,000 to equip their boardrooms with the
cameras, audio equipment and high speed telecommunication lines necessary for
video conferences. Certainly this technology is not yet widely available to
the average citizen.
Will we ever see the concept of the
PicturePhone revived? Two factors suggest that it's possible.
First, expect technologies that will let us
receive huge amounts of data in our home, a necessity for a crystal-clear
PicturePhone call. It is said that researchers at Northern Telecom, AT&T
and elsewhere have figured out how to send the entire Encyclopedia Britannica
from coast to coast in three seconds. That type of telecommunication
capability, available to the home at inexpensive rates, would make the
PicturePhone a practical reality.
Second, there is constant innovation in Silicon
Valley, with companies working on ways for people to use their existing
telephones for video conferencing. Take InfoView, a small California firm.
They've developed a small camera device that sits on top of your television.
Plug it into your telephone and TV, and the long-lost promise of the
PicturePhone has suddenly reappeared. Dial a friend who also has an Infoview,
press a button and the two of you are doing a PicturePhone-type call. The most
fascinating thing? The device costs U.S.$399 - a fraction of the cost of any
other telephone-based videoconferencing system available to individuals today.
Perhaps the PicturePhone itself will be
revived, proving that the concept itself was right - just thirty or so years
ahead of its time.
* * * * * * * * *
Jim Carroll is the author of the critically acclaimed book, Surviving the
Information Age, which addresses issues of coping with technological
change. He has co-authored 24 other books which have sold some 650,000 copies,
including the national best-selling Canadian Internet Handbook. He can
be reached on the Internet at
and has an on-line site containing many other articles concerning the Internet
on the World Wide Web on the Internet at www.jimcarroll.com. He welcomes your