TV History 10: Face-to-Face Television

 
1927 Illustration, Wagner Magazine, Germany: Women of the year 2000, flying their personal airplanes to meet friends at lunch.

Drinking in midday and smoking as casually as men, both women at the table are distracted by the little video screen in their hands, paying more attention to it than to each other. In one woman’s case, she’s looking in on her child, and on the other’s tiny round screen, a man, a lover in all probability. There’s a lot of fashionable, imaginative conjecture here in one picture, but nearly a century later, minus the aviatrix hats, wouldn’t this be a pretty close 2019 approximation of two young women at lunch, wearing earbuds, using FaceTime on their phones? For almost 90 years this idea looked futuristic. Now, the liberated lifestyles of those modern ladies of leisure and the pocket “mirrors” of their hand-held video screens are commonplace 21st century reality.

TV was always supposed to be two-way, face-to-face communication. The idea of television was born in the wake of the telephone, not radio; the idea of mass broadcasting, one to a million, wasn’t yet dreamed of when the first dense webs of phone wires were formed. The image of the ladies on their picture phones was what most educated people of 1900-1925 expected the television of the future to be like.

Video telephones were a stock prop in science fiction for a long time, surprisingly for almost all of the 20th century. Yet the glowing video screen and the camera pickup tube were accomplished by the early ’30s; why’d it take so long?

Videophone-linked lovers in the future world of 1940. (“High Treason”, UK, 1929)

After all, in Manhattan as early as 1931, you could respond to a written invitation from AT&T to be part of an experimental two-way conversation across town with a friend at one of the city’s other two Bell Telephone television rooms. By 1937, you could do this in Nazi Germany on a much more practical scale, and across much greater distances. Family members in Munich, Hamburg, and Berlin could hold reunions in various public picturephone rooms to make use of intercity video bandwidth originally put in for remote viewing of the Berlin Olympics. Even the USSR would get into the act. None of these experimental television-telephone services, essentially all propaganda showpieces of future tech, survived the war.

The 1939-40 New York World’s Fair was remembered for popularizing superhighways, television, robots, nylon, and the one that didn’t catch on: faxing newspapers overnight nationwide via radio. Twenty-five years later, the 1964-65 World’s Fair was supposed to be the mass market commercial debut of new technologies like space travel, computers, and video telephones, featured at AT&T’s Bell System Pavilion.

When I was 12, I thought they were right around the corner; as it turned out, my future wife and her sister talked to each other over the Bell Picturephones as well. As a further futuristic touch, at random the video booth conversations in New York were extended to the Bell exhibit at Disneyland, creating transcontinental face-to-face talks between strangers. Of course, 55 years ago the only company that could afford AT&T’s exorbitant long distance rates was … AT&T.

From the White House: Lady Bird Johnson calls New York City Mayor Robert Wagner.

The 1964 iteration of the long-awaited vidphone was practical, durable, and well-crafted to fit within the company’s century-old wired network of spoken telephone technology. AT&T was one of the largest, most respected industrial corporations in the world, famous for its long-reaching plans. The anticipated Sixties-Seventies leap to Picturephones was long in the making, with phased investments. Yet it failed, and the failure was so famous that for decades, it became a case study in business schools, as if the lessons of that loss were obvious. “The blind fools spent the money before they bothered to find out if customers wanted it”—that was supposed to be the bottom line.

But that wasn’t really so. Lots of customers said they wanted it, but not at the price point that the phone company could finally reach—$150/month: in 2019 dollars, $1,000, per video phone, per month. People were ready to pay three or four times as much to see who they were talking with, not 30 to 40 times as much. In the bandwidth-starved analog era, that’s the best Ma Bell could do.

Like the Concorde or the Space Shuttle, video telephoning became a development of the late ’60s that worked but for vastly more money than predicted. From this point forward, though, large companies that could afford it started to treat themselves to video conferencing rooms that rivaled the lairs of James Bond villains. That became a narrow, lucrative specialized market that was the videophone’s first real-world success.

By the late ’80s, speculation about interactive and two-way television was coming back into the news. Sony and other companies pioneered a tiny, short-lived market in still image, black and white phones that worked over regular phone lines. Sony Face to Face had a specific need in mind: Japanese men who were separated from their families on long contract projects in foreign countries.

Although my cross-country business travels were usually brief, I carried a Sony transceiver whenever I was away from home. After the American Film Institute’s 25th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Uptown Theater in DC, I was probably the only California-based member of the audience who was able, like the film’s fictional Dr. Heywood Floyd, to actually go on a phone afterwards and say hello to my kids, 2,700 miles away.

1993 wasn’t 2001, not quite yet. That same year, the day after Bill Clinton’s inauguration, I visited AT&T’s fabled laboratory in Holmdel, NJ, then one of the nation’s jewels of privately financed research. They were all in on what they saw as the future profit center of the telephone company, sending video to the home, with various new methods called ISDN (individual subscriber digital network) and DSL (digital subscriber line). The UK’s notably un-sentimental business journal The Economist gave it Big Capitalism’s official nod of the head, calling ISDN “The unmistakable sound of money hitting the table: I Smell Dollars Now.” And they were right to. This wasn’t quite broadband to the home yet, but it was only half a step, half a decade away.

Until then, there was a fairly cheap product called Via 8, full-motion videophones that worked over regular phone wires at no extra charge. They were popular with families; we still have ours. You could send motion or detail, not both, but they worked surprisingly well during the turn of the 21st-century twilight of low definition TV and “POTS”—Plain Old Telephone Service.

A year after the World’s Fair closed: The late Sixties take a wrecking ball to the dreams of the early Sixties. But not all of them.
Then, broadband to the home changed everything. Smartphones with cameras changed them again: Skype, FaceTime, and you know the rest of the story.

It’s been claimed again and again that there’s no real market for seeing who you’re talking with. Certainly, there’s no need for most phone calls to be made at arm’s length and in flattering light. But there are already a couple of valid, time-proven markets for video telephony (yes, there is such a term): Family Reunions. Business meetings. Staying in touch with a spouse during distant travel. Young people’s vanity. All four uses are reliably not going away anytime soon.

The picture up at the top, of 1927’s ladies of the future: ignoring for the moment the social implications of this lifestyle and what it’s actually meant for relations between the sexes in our century, let’s jump to the really captivating factor here: Realistic product design. The whole thing isn’t in the hand-held screen; it’s assumed that a handbag-sized case with a shoulder strap would hold the battery and most of the electronics. Remember the “bag” or “lunchbox” first-generation cellular phones that were called “Salesman’s specials?” Same idea. Not bad for 1927, a prophecy that finally came true.

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There are 64 comments.

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  1. Al French, sad sack Member

    No real market for seeing who you’re talking to? Tonight my five year old granddaughter FaceTimed me to show me that she lost her first tooth.

    Another great post. Thanks, Gary.

    • #1
    • July 21, 2019, at 9:15 PM PDT
    • 13 likes
  2. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    It’s my pleasure, Al. In fact, it’s an honor. Thanks for sailing around on that damn boat fifty years ago, protecting our sorry hides. 

    • #2
    • July 21, 2019, at 9:19 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  3. Judge Mental Member

    I worked for a company in the naughties that built what might have been the best telepresence system on the market, aimed at the business meeting market. (I didn’t work on that; I was building a new product.) You would have a dedicated room, with a long, skinny conference table that had six chairs on one side. You would be staring at a wall, with three large flatscreens, each large enough for a life-sized view of two people, in another room with the same table setup. What made their system so cool was the use of multiple cameras and microphones, such that if you looked directly at one of the images on the screen, they would see you looking directly at them. And you could whisper to the people at your end of the table without the people at the other end being able to hear. It was as close to actual presence as you’ll ever get, short of holograms.

    In fact, I think they might have invented the term telepresence.

    I haven’t talked to anyone there for about 12 years. I don’t know if they have any business at all left, with the changes since then. FaceTime and GotoMeeting aren’t as good, but they’re way cheaper.

    • #3
    • July 21, 2019, at 9:30 PM PDT
    • 13 likes
  4. Judge Mental Member

    I also saw videophone at a Bell Labs open house when I was five or six, second half of the 60s. The old man worked there as a machinist, making prototypes of the stuff guys like @skipsul ‘s dad were designing.

     

    • #4
    • July 21, 2019, at 9:35 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  5. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    I worked for a company in the naughties that built what might have been the best telepresence system on the market, aimed at the business meeting market. (I didn’t work on that; I was building a new product.) You would have a dedicated room, with a long, skinny conference table that had six chairs on one side. You would be staring at a wall, with three large flatscreens, each large enough for a life-sized view of two people, in another room with the same table setup. What made their system so cool was the use of multiple cameras and microphones, such that if you looked directly at one of the images on the screen, they would see you looking directly at them. And you could whisper to the people at your end of the table without the people at the other end being able to hear. It was as close to actual presence as you’ll ever get, short of holograms.

    In fact, I think they might have invented the term telepresence.

    I haven’t talked to anyone there for about 12 years. I don’t know if they have any business at all left, with the changes since then. FaceTime and GotoMeeting aren’t as good, but they’re way cheaper.

    All comments here are pure gold, but this one is pure platinum. The AFI conducted telepresence experiments under contract in the Nineties. I wasn’t able to later snag any of them for ACF because we were too small an organization to credibly conduct research at that scale, a lasting disappointment.

    We had a sour joke at AFI that for an honest system, the director of the organization should speak to us up on a gigantic screen near the ceiling angled down, and her image of us should be a small screen at about floor height. Think of Adenoid Hynkel’s radio speeches in “The Great Dictator”.

    • #5
    • July 21, 2019, at 9:36 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  6. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    I also saw videophone at a Bell Labs open house when I was five or six, second half of the 60s. The old man worked there as a machinist, making prototypes of the stuff guys like @skipsul ‘s dad were designing.

     

    At the 1994 National Video Festival I managed to get the Labs to loan us an artifact, one of the original Mark I 1964 Picturephones. The technology inside was conventional–a stack of printed circuits, a power supply, heavy magnets around the necks of the picture and camera tubes–but all obviously hand made to the highest standards. 

    • #6
    • July 21, 2019, at 9:42 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  7. Judge Mental Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    I also saw videophone at a Bell Labs open house when I was five or six, second half of the 60s. The old man worked there as a machinist, making prototypes of the stuff guys like @skipsul ‘s dad were designing.

     

    At the 1994 National Video Festival I managed to get the Labs to loan us an artifact, one of the original Mark I 1964 Picturephones. The technology inside was conventional–a stack of printed circuits, a power supply, heavy magnets around the necks of the picture and camera tubes–but all obviously hand made to the highest standards.

    You never know.

    Another great post, Gary.

    • #7
    • July 21, 2019, at 9:48 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  8. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    That 1927 illustration had some amazing insights into the 21st century: women would wear pants, and the waiters would be gay. 

    • #8
    • July 21, 2019, at 9:49 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  9. She Thatcher
    She

    Terrific post; terrific comments. Thanks.

    What I most remember, from early (to my eyes, I’m taking 80s and on) attempts at teleconferencing was all the blasted wires, cords and cables. I was usually the person, or one of the people, tasked with putting all the pieces together and getting it to work. Just getting it all connected was a job in itself, and sometimes took hours, for a few minutes of conferencing (if the actual uplink or comm line worked, even then). It hardly seemed worth it. And I’m pretty sure that sometimes it would have been quicker, and probably less expensive, to drive to a meeting point and confer face-to-face for real.

    • #9
    • July 21, 2019, at 9:54 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  10. Judge Mental Member

    Speaking of popular entertainment though, you can’t forget Dick Tracy’s wrist radio, with two-way video.

    • #10
    • July 21, 2019, at 10:00 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  11. EJHill Podcaster

    The amazing thing about those picture phones is that it was full video, 30 frames per second although the screen was smaller.

    • #11
    • July 21, 2019, at 10:04 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  12. Aaron Miller Member

    It’s almost enough to give one hope for flying cars. 

    Judge Mental (View Comment):
    What made their system so cool was the use of multiple cameras and microphones, such that if you looked directly at one of the images on the screen, they would see you looking directly at them. And you could whisper to the people at your end of the table without the people at the other end being able to hear. It was as close to actual presence as you’ll ever get, short of holograms.

    I have read about similar projects in the past few years involving VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality) — two media forms which can now be combined in one device as alternate modes. 

    My father was among those who couldn’t imagine ever wanting a videophone. Now he always welcomes a video chat with the grandkids. 

    • #12
    • July 21, 2019, at 10:07 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  13. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    It’s almost enough to give one hope for flying cars.

    Another early Sixties vision–

     

    • #13
    • July 21, 2019, at 10:13 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  14. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Speaking of popular entertainment though, you can’t forget Dick Tracy’s wrist radio, with two-way video.

    In the 1982 “Blade Runner”, and AT&T’s mid-Nineties TV commercials, there are video phone booths. Little did they know that by the time we actually had face to face video, few young people had ever seen a phone booth. 

    • #14
    • July 21, 2019, at 10:15 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  15. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    She (View Comment):

    Terrific post; terrific comments. Thanks.

    What I most remember, from early (to my eyes, I’m taking 80s and on) attempts at teleconferencing was all the blasted wires, cords and cables. I was usually the person, or one of the people, tasked with putting all the pieces together and getting it to work. Just getting it all connected was a job in itself, and sometimes took hours, for a few minutes of conferencing (if the actual uplink or comm line worked, even then). It hardly seemed worth it. And I’m pretty sure that sometimes it would have been quicker, and probably less expensive, to drive to a meeting point and confer face-to-face for real.

    PictureTel was one of the first companies to try to make it into a turnkey operation–no muss, no fuss. It emerged later that one of the most successful institutional investors in the company was the Saudi Binladen group (their spelling). You know, the technology that businesses leaned on when airplane travel lost some of its showroom shine. I’m not going all Bilderberg on this, just noting an odd fact. 

    • #15
    • July 21, 2019, at 10:18 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  16. Percival Thatcher

    We had an early videoconferencing room. We could get more done faster with a regular phone conference plus FTP capability to move files back and forth. Just shooing the vice presidents out of the special conference room ate more time than the whole thing was worth.

    • #16
    • July 21, 2019, at 10:27 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  17. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Some of the movies’ modern depictions of government video conferencing include “Seven Days in May” (1964) and “The Forbin Project” (1969). They mocked up the phones pretty well in “Forbin”. 

    • #17
    • July 21, 2019, at 10:34 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  18. Hank Rhody, on the blockchain Contributor

    In terms of form-factor for video phones, I like the ones in Space 1999. They were imagining small and portable cathode ray tubes. The tubes had to be long enough to direct the electron beam, so you’d end up with a phone with a two inch screen on a foot of depth.

    On the plus side they’d come in handy if space vampires ever attacked.

    • #18
    • July 21, 2019, at 10:37 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  19. Hank Rhody, on the blockchain Contributor

    Percival (View Comment):

    We had an early videoconferencing room. We could get more done faster with a regular phone conference plus FTP capability to move files back and forth. Just shooing the vice presidents out of the special conference room ate more time than the whole thing was worth.

    Should have invested in a sheepdog.

    • #19
    • July 21, 2019, at 10:39 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  20. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Hank Rhody-Badenphipps Esq (View Comment):

    In terms of form-factor for video phones, I like the ones in Space 1999. They were imagining small and portable cathode ray tubes. The tubes had to be long enough to direct the electron beam, so you’d end up with a phone with a two inch screen on a foot of depth.

    On the plus side they’d come in handy if space vampires ever attacked.

    I have a pair of Sony handheld TVs of the analog era that had a cathode ray tube with such an ingeniously curved electron path that its insides must have resembled a Klein bottle imagined by M.C. Escher. 

    • #20
    • July 21, 2019, at 10:41 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  21. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    EJHill (View Comment):

    The amazing thing about those picture phones is that it was full video, 30 frames per second although the screen was smaller.

    In the analog days, it was tougher to imagine resisting the seductive pull of using that AC 60 hz as the time base. 

    • #21
    • July 21, 2019, at 10:44 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  22. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Once this post receives 0 more likes it will appear on the Ricochet Member Recommended Feed

    CPE 1704 TKS

    CPE 1704 TKS

    My God, we’ve got the launch code!

    • #22
    • July 21, 2019, at 10:56 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  23. Judge Mental Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Once this post receives 0 more likes it will appear on the Ricochet Member Recommended Feed.

    CPE 1704 TKS

    CPE 1704 TKS

    My God, we’ve got the launch code!

    It always bothered me to the extreme, how long it took the WOPR to get the last digit. C’mon, there are only 36 possibilities.

    • #23
    • July 21, 2019, at 11:03 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  24. Joseph Stanko Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    That 1927 illustration had some amazing insights into the 21st century: women would wear pants, and the waiters would be gay.

    The part that puzzles me: why are they eating at what appears to be a posh restaurant located in the middle of a field in the wilderness? Are there no more buildings in the year 2000?

    • #24
    • July 21, 2019, at 11:29 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  25. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    That 1927 illustration had some amazing insights into the 21st century: women would wear pants, and the waiters would be gay.

    The part that puzzles me: why are they eating at what appears to be a posh restaurant located in the middle of a field in the wilderness? Are there no more buildings in the year 2000?

    There’s an answer: I’m not claiming it’s a sound one, but a fascinating paradox. Circa the Twenties and early Thirties, building new garden towns in green belts outside cities was a progressive cause. Keeping construction workers at work building mile after mile of new housing for people who’d never lived outside the city was progressive. They made award-winning left-wing documentaries about it.

    Le Corbusier, whose buildings were kinda beautiful, can’t be held responsible for all the ill-planned, oversized city developments that would bastardize his ideas. He did believe in moderately (not super) tall, thin apartment buildings, each unit with a terrace, widely separated by greenery. Whether you see it in east Berlin or in east St. Louis, chances are it has nothing like the intended proportions Corbu (“The Raven”) gave it. It’s like seeing a Corvette designed by the creative team of the AMC Pacer.

    Hmm…maybe I should reach for a less topical example…

    • #25
    • July 22, 2019, at 12:08 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  26. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Each morning, I tore the daily fax out of the machine before breakfast. It was the perfect grim accompaniment to the color images on the radiovisor screen. 

    • #26
    • July 22, 2019, at 1:11 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  27. Jon1979 Lincoln

    Aside from the Picturephone, the other new-ish (but not totally new) introduction at the 1964-65 World’s Fair was the Touch-Tone phones, which took the place of all the rotary dials at the pay phone spots set up at the Fair around Flushing Meadows. As a kid, the novelty was being able to punch buttons and make music with the tones instead of the rotary clicks, but as with the Picturephones, the full use of the option would have to wait until the computer era really got going, and keying in passcodes, names and numbers became standard operating procedure.

    As for the early portable video phones, I never got to play with that one, but back in 1994 I was able to fool around a bit with the Nikon D-3 that had been adapted with a digital sensor where the film pressure plate had previously been on the back of the camera, which the Associated Press had adopted for use as its first serious SLR digital camera (it got it’s first real workout at Super Bowl XXVIII between the Cowboys and Bills). It was the precursor to all of today’s cellphone cameras, and as with AT&T’s Picturephone of the 1960s, came with a steep price to use — $25,000 for the camera, $16,000 for the software around making the digital images downloadable and transferrable quickly, which (aside from the end of film costs) was the main point of AP going to digital software. Thanks to the faster advances today in computer and communications technology than 55 years ago, it didn’t take nearly as long for digital camera costs to come down as it did for the dreams of the Picturephone developers to become reality.

    • #27
    • July 22, 2019, at 4:29 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  28. Steve C. Member

    Given the year and the visual style of Weimar era Germany, I think it’s more likely the “waiter” is a woman. NTTAWWT.

    • #28
    • July 22, 2019, at 5:25 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  29. DrewInWisconsin, Influencer Member

    In the mostly-forgotten 1997 tv show Earth: Final Conflict, characters carried around these little hand-held communicators which, along with providing access to the global net, had screens for doing Facetime chats.

    Image result for Earth Final Conflict

    Ten years later . . . everyone started carrying around these little hand-held communicators which, along with providing access to the global net, had screens for Facetime chats.

    Image result for Original iPhone

     

    • #29
    • July 22, 2019, at 6:36 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  30. Seawriter Member

    That lead illustration sure was predictive of behavior if not technology. (We still don’t have flying cars.) Two women having lunch together talking on their phones to someone not there (and different people based on the images on the screens) instead of each other. Go to any restaurant today and you are sure to see that scenario played out at a couple of tables.

    • #30
    • July 22, 2019, at 8:15 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
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