Sometimes A Dumb Notion
Picturephone is the technology of the future—always has been, always will be
In 1958 a Popular Mechanics article called “miracles Ahead on Your Telephone” envisioned speakerphones, call forwarding, voice mail, and burglar alarms that would automatically notify the police. Two years later Changing Times predicted worldwide direct dialing, fax machines, and hand-held portable phones. Both these articles, and many others of the era, capped their clairvoyance with the most fantastic prophecy of all: a phone that would let you see the person you were talking to.
For all its futuristic gloss, this idea is nearly as old as the telephone itself. Perhaps its first appearance came in a cartoon in the British magazine Punch in 1878. The science-fiction pioneer Hugo Gernsback used it in 1911 (in a story set in 2660), and Tom Swift and His Photo-Telephone was published in 1914. By the late 1950s Bell Labs had a prototype, which was publicly exhibited at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. That same year public Picturephone booths, big enough to hold five people, opened in a few office buildings in New York, Chicago, and Washington. At $16 to $27 for three minutes, demand was limited.
In 1970 AT&T introduced a new, improved Picturephone, which could be installed in the user’s office or home. It needed three pairs of wires to connect with the central switching facility (as opposed to one pair for voice-only calls) and an amplifier every mile along the way to boost the analogue signal. No long-distance service was available, though it was promised; for transmissions longer than six miles, signals would be digitalized, at some cost in picture clarity.
Company officials predicted 100,000 subscribers nationwide by 1975, 1,000,000 by 1980, and 3,000,000 by the mid-1980s. Reality was less inspiring. A year after its introduction in Pittsburgh, there were only 33 Picturephones in the entire city. AT&T conceded that there would probably be no “general residential use” until the 1990s, but soon even that looked optimistic. Efforts to market Picturephone nationwide were abandoned in 1973.
Picturephone was supposed to simulate face-to-face conversation, but the best it could do was a black-and-white image made up of 250 lines (about half the number used in regular television) on a screen about five inches square, with shaky synchronization between voice and image. Even so, the video portion of a call used about 300 times as much bandwidth as the audio portion. And of course, both parties had to be equipped for Picturephone.
Unlike car phones, Picturephone never had long lists of people waiting to sign up. And periodic attempts to revive the concept with modern technology have never taken off. AT&T’s color VideoPhone flopped in 1992, as did a wireless version launched in 2000. Even today, with transmission of voice and images over the Internet becoming routine, services that combine the two, while popular among homesick expatriates in Silicon Valley, remain a niche product at best. Simulating eye contact with video is like simulating bacon with tofu: No matter how close you come, it’s never close enough.
But even if it had worked better, there was no real need for Picturephone. Most people simply don’t want to see or be seen by the person they’re talking to; in almost every case, the question “What are you wearing?” is better answered with words than pictures. Early promoters responded to such privacy-based objections (which Gernsback, still around in 1964, attributed to “wildly perturbed lady columnists”) by pointing out that anyone who didn’t want to be seen could simply terminate the video transmission. It should have told the enthusiasts something when one of Picturephone’s biggest selling points was the fact that it was easy to turn off.
Picturephone did anticipate many features of today’s world. Gernsback envisioned merchants making sales with it, and multisite business meetings were seen as another major application. The 1970 version could be hooked up to a computer to display charts and graphs, and by 1971 Alcoa had developed a way to use Picturephone to “find any piece of information among thousands of stored facts” (according to The New York Times ).
All these things exist today, but usually not through the cumbersome method of live, point-to-point transmission of video images. Meanwhile, the application that was supposed to be the raison d’être of Picturephone, face-to-face communication, commands only a modest market. The lady columnists were right after all. However impressive the engineering behind it, and however valuable the experience and data it generated, Picturephone remains one of technology’s most prominent examples of an elaborate solution in search of a problem.