Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting

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The Picture Phone…

The Picture Phone – it’s finally here!  It took fifty years but the future has at long last arrived.  My goodness, what took us so long?  Bell Telephone had the idea way back in 1956 and built the first laboratory test system that year.  By 1964 a more complete experimental system was far enough along to do public demonstrations.  The expectation was that soon the Picture Phone would become a widely used enhancement to regular voice calls.

In the 1968 classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey the Picture Phone is prominently featured in a call home to earth from an orbiting space station.  The expectation was that businesses would adopt this technology first and then it would spread to more general consumer use.  But in spite of the monopolistic strength of the Bell System, the Picture Phone did not find even limited acceptance.  Why were the predictions for this technology so wrong?

Cost was one issue.  The bandwidth needed for uncompressed video was much greater than for voice and required two additional sets of wires for sending and receiving the video signals.  However, the real obstacle to acceptance turned out to be much more fundamental than technology complexity.  During the 1960’s and 1970’s and even a decade or two after, the telephone was a fixed location device.  I had one on my desk and you had one on yours.  And when I wanted to talk to you, I would call your telephone and if you happened to be at your desk, we would get to talk.  If you were somewhere else, leaving a message was maybe a viable option. 

Adding video to this arrangement does not do much to enhance the communications process.  In most situations, I already know what you look like and seeing you in your office or in a room in your home does not do much to facilitate our communications process.  Furthermore, most telephone users did not want to have uncontrolled video access in case they were not properly dressed or otherwise unprepared for video viewing.  Given this user resistance, and lack of clear benefit, the concept was doomed -- even at no additional cost. 

The 1970’s passed, as did the 1980’s, and the Picture Phone became a forgotten product concept relegated to the technology junkyard of “great but impractical ideas”. 

But then in the 1990’s something began to happen that no one had imagined when the Picture Phone was first conceived.  A new technology, that first started as the “car phone” in the 1980’s, began to transition into the truly portable “cell phone”.  Soon everyone had to have one and instead of calling a telephone at a fixed location, people began to call each other’s phones that now accompanied them wherever they went.   We quickly transitioned from a location based communications system to one that was location independent.  We could talk to each other at any time no matter where we were or what we happened to be doing.  

Then an additional feature was added to a few cell phone models that initially made no sense whatsoever -- at least not from a purely technical viewpoint.  Someone decided to combine a cell phone with a digital camera.  Now, why would anyone want to combine a cell phone with an inferior camera?  Why not just bring along a small camera that produces good quality photos instead?  If you want to take a picture, use a camera – if you want to make a call use your phone! 

How wrong that turned out to be.  Users quickly figured out that having a camera in their cell phones allowed them not only to capture images but to instantly send these images to let their friends see the new locations they were visiting, or special events they were experiencing.  Now instead of just seeing you sitting at your desk, as was envisioned by the Picture Phone developers, we are all able to participate in each other’s life experiences.  What a dramatic difference – and all of this a result of the conventional telephone having become a location independent device.

What would the pioneers who envisioned the original Picture Phone think of this new direction?  Just one important change in how we make “phone calls” allowed a technology that was relegated to a junkyard to be reborn in a new and exciting incarnation.  Well, it only took fifty years, but the telephone, image capture, and image transmission are now inextricably linked.  Welcome to the future world of the Picture Phone. 

Should you wish to offer your thoughts about the evolution of the Picture Phone technology, or any other display related topic, you may contact me directly from this site, by email at silzars@attglobal.net, or by telephone at 425-898-9117.