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Video from the phone

A British videophone on trial, early 1970s

World's first videophone system (1964) : seeing as well as hearing

Videophones, transmitting a picture of the speaker as well as his or her voice, are older than most people think. Commercial systems were used in France and Germany during the 1930s but they were cumbersome and expensive.

Even the American company AT&T's Picturephone of 1956 was crude - transmitting an updated still image only once every two seconds. By 1964 AT&T had developed a complete experimental system, the 'Mod 1'. To test it, the public was invited to place calls between special exhibits at Disneyland and the New York World's Fair. In both locations, visitors were carefully interviewed afterward by a market research agency.

The findings were not encouraging. It turned out people didn't actually like Picturephone. It was too bulky, the controls too unfriendly, and the picture too small.

A videophone concept produced by Plessey, 1960s - the unit itself is a Connected Earth artefact, now in the National Museums of Scotland collection

The first videophone service (1970) : a million within ten years...

Despite far from encouraging market research findings, AT&T executives in the USA were convinced that their Picturephone system would eventually be a winner. Following a six year trial, a commercial Picturephone service made its debut in Pittsburgh in 1970, with AT&T executives confidently predicting that a million sets would be in use by 1980.

They were wrong. Take-up was painfully slow and the service was later withdrawn. Despite its improvements, Picturephone was still big, expensive and uncomfortably intrusive. There was also doubt as to whether people actually wanted to be seen on the phone at all (indeed, there's quite a lot of research in the industry which proves they don't!).


First desktop videoconference system (1990) : attending virtual meetings

The Picturephone experiment in the USA during the early 1970s had been a failure. But by the 1990s four new factors had come together to make widespread videoconferencing a realistic proposition. These were: the growing use of the personal computer (PC) placed a screen on virtually every desktop; falling prices for image capture devices connected to PCs making digital photography and video affordable; use of the Internet provided a low-cost means of connecting voice, images and people in real time over unlimited networks; and last - but not least - international standards ratified in 1996 and 1998 ensuring the compatibility of all equipment.

In fact, the first PC-based video phones were demonstrated by IBM and PictureTel as early as 1991 but the system was expensive and the results less than convincing. Even today videoconferencing is by no means universal, partly because the extra equipment necessary to provide full-screen pictures and sound as good as normal television costs as much as the PC itself and requires a special ISDN or broadband telephone line.

Relate 2000 videophone - a Connected Earth artefact, now in the Amberley Museum

 Relate 2000 videophone (1990s) : here's looking at you

Videophones have been a dream for many years, and with this telephone the dream almost became reality. This videophone was the first one BT made commercially available, in the 1990s. It promised callers the chance to see, and be seen by, the person they were talking to.

The snag was it didn't work very well. The technology of the telephone was good, but the network's bandwidth wasn't broad enough to carry all the pictures, sound and colours at once. A caller could see the person but the image would shift very jerkily from one frame to another, which was quite disconcerting.

The telephone was designed with a flip-up screen on the right, where the video played. They were available for £500 each or two for £900 - but with such poor image quality, and with so few others having them, take up was minimal.

fun and games

Can you beat our games? Explode equipment to see what's inside, hear the changing sounds of telecommunications, see how telecommunications designs have changed over time or send an e-postacard.

what's on

The UK's first permanent gallery dedicated to the history of information and communication technologies opens in the new Information Age gallery at London’s Science Museum.

audio history

Take a trip down memory lane with extracts of the interviews which have been recorded as part of the Connected Earth oral history programme.

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