Picturephone: the invention more flawed the whole story 50 years

An iconic photograph of the first Picturephone produced by AT&T (image source: TDI)

Nowadays, the only thing you need to do if you want to chat on video with someone is calling your webcam and use Skype or Google Hangouts. But things were not always so easy. There was a time when it was necessary to move into a building of AT&T – today known as a mobile telephony operator – and pay about $ 610 (US $ 1,300) to use a strange device that could only display black and white images and 30 frames per second. For only fifteen minutes.

The scenario described above may seem absurd, but trust me: this was the reality of the American citizens five decades ago. Revealed publicly in April 20, 1964, the machine baptized as Bell’s Mod I Picturephone is considered the first videophone to make commercial success and responsible for encouraging the world industry to invest heavily in research in the field of video conferencing.

The product was released by AT&T in a favorable season occurred in New York the world’s fair of 1964 (better known as Expo 64), which assembled thousands of tourists in the city. Anyone interested in testing the novelty could enter in an endless queue for the chance to talk for ten minutes with a complete stranger positioned in another Picturephone, which was being shown simultaneously at Disneyland (California).

Picturephone Mod I in full videoconferencing session; Notice the curious format of appliance (image source: Mashable)

Commercial version and first disaster

On 24 June of the same year, the AT&T began his commercial services with so curious Picturephone. Besides the pre-positioned units in New York, the company decided to distribute more devices in Washington and Chicago. Those interested in using the gadget needed to make reservations with antecedências and pay the ridiculous price of $ 16 per three minutes of conversation. The most common was the plan of 15 minutes, which cost $ 80 – amount today would be equivalent to $ 610 or $ 1,300.

Looking for the unit under a contemporary perspective, it’s hard not to give a giggle of his technical specifications – especially when we have in view of the exorbitant value that people spent to use it.

The Picturephone Mod I had a monochrome screen of 13 cm x 12 cm and demanded that its user remained practically immobile so that its very low resolution camera could frame your face with success. In addition, connections were somewhat unstable and could fall to a minimum of interference.

To the misfortune of the engineers responsible for the invention, he failed to settle in the market. The first model of the Picturephone almost failed to gain customers and was soon regarded as a failed experiment – which did not prevent the AT&T and other telephony companies to continue investing in this segment.

03Second version of the Picturephone had more attractive design (image source: Mashable)

And more attempts …

The company soon released the Picturephone Mod II, a slightly improved version of your appliance and geared especially to the corporate market. The appliance – who possessed a far more attractive design, but had a hardware identical to the previous model – began to be sold directly to large businesses, instead of being distributed in the form of service for the general population. Another failure: it is estimated that AT&T spent more than half a billion dollars with the invention between 1966 and 1973, without having satisfactory returns.

Proving that quitting is for the weak, the company made another attempt in July 1982, launching the Picturephone Service Meeting (or Meetings service Picturephone, in a free translation). A conference call an hour between New York and Los Angeles would cost at least $ 2.3 million – if the company wanted to, you could buy the equipment for more than $ 117 thousand or rent it for about $ 18 million. Needless to say it didn’t work out, huh?

The last attempt of the AT&T was in January 1992: the VideoPhone 2500 was compact and had a small LCD screen capable of displaying images in color, but cost $ 1.5 million on its release. The price was later reduced to $ 1,000, and the product was subsequently offered under the lease system for $ 30 per day. Realizing that no one would be interested by the gadget, the company finally withdrew the Picturephone.

VideoPhone 2500 was the last attempt of the AT&T (image source: Gaétan Cambra)