Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Forbes Week #2: Dude, Where's My Videophone?

     Often freelance jobs are one-shot deals. The list of publications I've written one article and no more for stretches from Sports Illustrated to Brides to the New York Times Sunday Magazine. But Forbes liked my piece on Dante and failure, and asked me to follow up with the stumbling history of video telephones, which STILL haven't taken off and, I would suggest never will.  This was originally posted on Forbes online Oct. 15, 2007. 

     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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9 comments:

  1. Re: "... the stumbling history of video telephones, which STILL haven't taken off and, I would suggest never will." I guess it's how you define "video telephone" -- if you mean a dedicated device solely serving as such, then you're like;y right. But Apple's FaceTime and Skype's video feature and Google's Gchat or Hangout or whatever it's called now -- folks have been doing video phonecalls on cellphones and desktops/laptops for some years now. My daughter -- to get her on a "traditional" phone call is like pulling teeth, but she FaceTimes with friends and savvier relatives constantly. Millions of folks do this regularly. Surely that counts as video telephone?

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  2. FaceTime, Skype and the like are a bit more advanced now than when Neil wrote this article, but I bet not more than 10% of calls between devices capable of providing video actually do so. If I want to talk to my daughter, I call her cell phone and we talk. If I want to see the grandkids throwing their cereal bowls across the kitchen, we FaceTime...and enjoy. But we don't get much talking done.

    john

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  3. I think you're missing my point. The key sentiment is "taking off." Not "sometimes used." People use Skype, Face-Time, etc. But not generally. My kids never use it. When people make phone calls—something they do less and less anyway—the norm, default, is not a video call and perhaps never will be, because people don't want it. That's my point. Sorry I have to laboriously explain it.

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    1. A regular phone is a convenience, a tool, but also an irritation when it rings unwanted. As I am infamous for not picking up most incoming calls, the extra invasion of a camera on the device never appealed to me. I understood the point before and after you wrote the piece.

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  4. Skype has been around for quite a while, anyone with an iPhone can use FaceTime, and I'm sure there are a number of similar apps for non-Apple phones. No one I know regularly uses any of these options, though. I agree with the reason you provide: I'd rather talk without being concerned about how I look. Also, why would I want to have to hold my phone up in front of my face and use the speaker?

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  5. I vaguely remember seeing the Picture Phone at the New York World's Fair in the summer of '65, but the idea had already existed for some time. Seven years earlier, my cousin gave me my first copy of MAD Magazine, and soon afterward , they ran a satire called "Picture Phone Backdrops". MAD recognized an immediate problem with Picture Phones: How are you going to be able to tell all those "little white lies" when the people you're trying to fool can easily SEE that you're faking it?

    So the MAD illustrators drew images of old home-movie screens and window shades that were cleverly redesigned to fool the caller. Fool your wife into thinking you're at the office instead of drinking in a bar. Fool your boss into thinking you're sick in bed when you're really at the ballgame. Fool a customer into believing your hotel isn't a dump. Fool potential houseguests into staying away because your house is (supposedly) being remodeled.

    MAD definitely "got the picture"--and, as they so often did, illustrated a valid point. Which was this: Much of our telephony is based on falsehood. The very word "phony" originates from use...or misuse...of the telephone.There would be no more turning down boys for dates because "I have to wash my hair." No more telemarketers or overseas phone scammers. No more calling in sick or fooling clients. The Picture Phone would prevent all that chicanery. Which could be one of the main reasons that it went the way of the jet pack and the flying car.

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  6. I certainly hoped I was respectful in tone in my original comment, and thought I was making an observation that could be supported? Your "That's my point. Sorry I have to laboriously explain it" response suggested otherwise. At any rate: In February 2014, Apple CEO Tim Cook said there were 15-20 million FaceTime calls daily. WhatsApp currently records 55 million video calls daily on their platform. In 2017, there were nearly 17 billion Facebook Messenger videochats, double the total from 2016 (so, 45 million daily). Maybe we can split the difference between "sometimes used" and "taking off" -- "Sometimes used" is certainly correct, because "always used" isn't true, and yet the usage for these services certainly seems to be growing at a rapid clip, suggesting that a growing number of people do want such a service, and that number surely seems to be in the millions.

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    1. The issue isn’t respect: even using your numbers, that’s less than 1 percent of all phone calls.

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    2. I suspect most of those video calls are young girls, making them the only segment "taking off". As a percentage of total calls it seems low. Maybe grandparents in Florida contribute to the numbers, which begs a question. When video calls become the rule rather than the exception, how deep will the water be around the grandmother's feet in Sarasota making a call to her grandchildren in Berwyn?

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