Today, the future is cloudy. But we all know what it used to look like: sleek people in Spandex catsuits talking to each other on wall-sized video telephones.
That's how they chatted on Star Trek. And on The Jetsons. And 2001: A Space Odyssey. And a thousand other science fiction films, books and TV shows.
Yet video telephones never took off in real life, even though they have been pushed on the public for more than 40 years, since the first "PicturePhone" was demonstrated at the New York World's Fair in 1964 with a hook-up between the Bell Pavilion and Disneyland in California.
When the PicturePhone was rolled out as an actual service, later that year, people were expected to line up to use the wonder, having first made reservations at a PicturePhone center in New York, Chicago or Washington, D.C., where they could ogle someone in a distant city as they talked, at the rate of $27 for a three-minute call between Chicago and New York, or about a day's pay for an experienced high school teacher at the time. The company stressed the usefulness of the phones in allowing proud grandparents to see new grandbabies and deaf teens to chat in sign language.
Cost and inconvenience kept the service from taking off, but AT&T—which ended up spending more than a billion dollars developing video telephones—persisted, ignoring futurists who quickly put their finger on a central problem holding back the devices.
"Will you be able to see as well as hear the person at the other end [of the phone line]?" wondered Arnold B. Barach in his 1962 book, 1975 and the Changes to Come, which accurately saw the rise of cable TV and call-waiting. "Such a service could be arranged now, but until there is a popular demand for 'phone seeing' to go with telephone calling, it is not likely to come to pass. Prospects of that demand developing in the next 15 years are not considered especially promising."
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