A technology allowing most of us to keep working effectively during the COVID-19 pandemic is called “videotelephony,” which is real-time, simultaneous audio-visual communication between two or more users. Right now, millions of workers and families are using Zoom, FaceTime, WhatsApp, WebEx, Skype and other software to see and hear each other live, using the built-in microphones and video cameras on our computers, tablets and mobile phones.
We take this capability for granted now, but it’s actually been over a century in the making. Generations of trial and error, billions in spent capital, technical brick walls and failed business models have paved the way to this morning’s Zoom meeting with your work team. You might want to change out of your pajamas, by the way.
Alexander Graham Bell famously patented the telephone in 1876. Shortly after, the concept of not only hearing the person you are talking to, but also seeing them simultaneously, stirred the imagination of inventors, writers and artists. It seemed like a reasonably-attainable next step. Early terms for a hypothetical device that could accomplish this included the “Telephonoscope” and the “Telectroscope”
Mr. Bell himself conceived of a device called an “electrical radiophone,” and predicted “the day would come when the man at the telephone would be able to see the distant person to whom he was speaking.” But that day would not come until long after Bell’s death in 1922.
The problem was, the transmission of moving images was a lot more complicated than transmitting audio. Motion picture film, also introduced in the late 1800s, was brought to life by chemicals reacting to silver-halide crystals in a darkroom, but unlike the telephone, electricity played no part in film’s construction or dissemination.
The telephone converted sound waves to electrical signals, as did radio station towers. Neither could transmit without electricity. And a telephone is “full-duplex,” meaning the data is transmitted in both directions, simultaneously, on a single carrier. The next challenge was to somehow electrify moving images, make them full-duplex, and accommodate their exponentially larger bandwidth.
It wasn’t until the late 1930s that cathode-ray-tube television sets were introduced to the world, and the concept of analog video began to gain traction. Unlike motion picture film, video is an electronic medium. Now that moving images were utilizing electricity, they could be transmitted to others, using antennas.
After World War II ended, and Americans had more spending money, black & white television sets became popular household items in the 1950s. But unlike the telephone, communication was still one way. It wasn’t full-duplex. You could see “The Honeymooners,” but they couldn’t see you, and it wasn’t live. Live television broadcasts were rare, and still in the experimental phase.
In 1964, AT&T’s Bell Labs (originally founded by Alexander Graham Bell), introduced the “Picturephone” at the New York World’s Fair and at Disneyland, demonstrating a video call between the two locales. Later, AT&T introduced public videophone booths in New York City, Chicago and Washington, DC. If you were in the New York videophone booth, you could see and hear someone in the Chicago videophone booth, in real time, and it was two-way communication.
The problem was, it was outrageously expensive. A three-minute call cost $225 in today’s money. The technology was finally here, but who could afford it? AT&T poured billions into this concept for years, manufacturing “PicturePhones” and “VideoPhones” for home and office, all the way through 1995, but they were always hampered by the limitations of low-bandwidth telephone lines and very high prices, making them not worth it for the consumer, and never widely adopted.
It wasn’t until broadband internet, and high-compression video codecs became widespread in the new millennium, that videotelephony finally became practical, affordable and thus marketable. In recent years, electronics manufacturers began to include video cameras and microphones as a standard feature in CPUs, tablets and mobile phones, making external webcams obsolete. Services like Skype, FaceTime and WebEx were introduced, and later WhatsApp, Zoom and numerous others.
Now it’s simple, and basically free, to have a high-quality, full-color video chat with your friend, partner or co-worker, and a company like Zoom has a net worth of 40 billion. It’s amazing that it took more than 100 years since the invention of the telephone to get here. And just in time for a global pandemic requiring strict physical distancing. Don’t forget to update your clever background image!