Introduction to How Video Conferencing Cell Phones Work

Video Telephony Flops: Before Cell Phone Video Conferencing Technology

One reason old videophones didn't catch on is because most people don't want to be caught with their pants down.
One reason old videophones didn't catch on is because most people don't want to be caught with their pants down.
Andrew G Hobbs/Stone Collection/Getty Images

Why hasn't video telephony hit the mainstream in the U.S. yet, as it has in other countries? For a few reasons, actually -- and, interestingly, it's not for lack of technology. The technology has been around since at least the mid-1960s, when Bell System (now AT&T) presented its "Picturephone" at the World's Fair in New York. The Picturephone gave users a two-way black-and-white video feed between those at the fair and other users in Disneyland.

After complaints about the phone's usability and its small screen, the company continued to tweak the product and held off selling it until 1970 [source: AT&T]. The Picturephone used three wires: one for two-way audio, one for one-way video and one for one-way video going the opposite direction [source: Noll]. When it was released, executives had high expectations for the Picturephone and drooled in anticipation of it becoming a household item in the next decade.

That hunger wasn't satisfied. The Picturephone's hefty price (not to mention its hefty size) prevented it from flying off shelves. AT&T tried again with a different video conferencing phone in 1992, called the Videophone 2500 [source: Noll]. Instead of three wires, it only used one, which meant it had to compress both the audio and video data (a process we'll discuss in detail later). Compression hurt the quality of both the video and the audio, and the product failed to impress consumers.

The problem with the videophone was that it was only useful for the purchaser if his or her friends and family members also owned videophones. Why buy an expensive toy that you can never use? In the end, it was a vicious cycle -- no one was buying it because no one else was buying it.

Many speculate another factor contributed to the videophone's historic flops. It seems people simply didn't care to add a visual to their phone calls -- in fact they preferred no visual at all. One of the things people like about a purely audio phone conversation is that you don't have to worry how you look. You can talk to someone before you've had your morning shower or even in your underwear.

Nonetheless, by the 21st century, people started to embrace a similar technology -- webcams. Webcams enable users to engage in video conversations over a personal computer. With advanced technology and the popularity of the cell phone, the old underdog video telephony has emerged again. Is 3G technology lifting the videophone from the ashes? Read on to find out.