132 Years of the Videophone: From Futuristic Fantasy to Flops to FaceTime

A visual history of the science and sci-fi of phone calls you can see. (No, it didn't start with The Jetsons.)

Posted by  | Monday, June 14, 2010

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Last week, Apple’s announcement of the iPhone 4 with FaceTime video calling capabilities brought the videophone back to the forefront of the media’s attention.  Steve Jobs’ keynote made it sound like FaceTime will bring video phone calls to consumers for the first time. But the idea of a two-way communications device that transmits pictures as well as sound is as old as the phone itself.

Economic factors have kept it out of the average consumer’s reach until the last few decades,  and the public has repeatedly greeted the concept–in stand-alone form, at least–with apathy. Still, inventors and dreamers keep coming back to the notion that the videophone is the way of the future.

Let’s take a stroll through videophone history to find out where things went wrong–and right–and how we got to the iPhone 4 and its rivals.



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Slides: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

18 Comments For This Post

  1. Bouke Timbermont Says:

    Personally I don’t care about facetime :/

    seriously: when are people actually gonna use this? I bet people owning an iPhone 4 will use it a few times at the beginning, but then drop the feature because it’s not really convenient (keeping the phone up before you).

    The scenarios where it is useful (like people being separated wanting to see eachother), the mobility of the iPhone isn’t really required so people can just as well use a laptop with webcam and use skype. Which btw doesn’t require an expensive AT&T contract ;)

  2. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    Video chat via Skype requires that the person you’re calling also be a Skype member. You have to know how to use Skype and track a separate contact list. Facetime uses phone numbers. You just call the same people you’ve always called from your same contact list and if video is possible, you get a video call. People are already communicating with their smartphones, so video chat belongs on the smartphone as video calls. Basically, you’re arguing that they ought to be a hassle, you ought to have to get out a laptop and screw around with Skype. Not sure what the point of that is.

    If you are traveling, that is when many people only have their phone, not a laptop and webcam. So I think you’re wrong about the scenes in the video. If you get a call from a soldier overseas and it includes video that is what you want, you don’t want to tell them go get a notebook and webcam and call my Skype handle.

    If you are already an iPhone user like many people, Facetime is free. iPhone 4 costs the same as iPhone 3GS. It isn’t like the lack of Facetime caused people to cancel their smartphone contracts. Facetime is an iPhone feature. If a smartphone contract is not for you, then of course Facetime is not for you.

    The key thing to understand is that iPhone users don’t have to do anything but upgrade their phone and keep using it exactly as before and video happens. Almost all of my friends have iPhones. As we upgrade we’ll see a lot more of each other. We’ll see what happens when video calls just work. It doesn’t matter if not everybody wants to use it all the time. Not everybody uses the photo camera in iPhone either, or the camcorder, or many other features.

  3. wshun Says:

    Skype requires that the person you’re calling also be a Skype member, so does iPhone facetime.

    Mobile video calls using phone numbers is the standard. Even with unlimited 3G data plan in Hong Kong, video calls still have not caught on. I believe Bouke is right, the reason is the inconvenience to keep the phone up before you.

    Companies talking about unified video chat standard for years. I doubt that Apple facetime can really break the deadlock.

  4. Corey Koltz Says:

    Don’t forget the Atari Videophone.

    http://www.atarimuseum.com/ataritel/index.html

  5. akri Says:

    I think people are ready for video chat..I have a 3GS and wanted to get the new phone but there’s no wi-fi in my area..hopefully in the future it will be and I’m there! I just hope people don’t do it while driving..there’s enough idiots out there texting and driving as it is..we don’t need any more accidents.

  6. Eli Says:

    Until a system is designed that puts the camera behind the screen, in the approximate location of your recipients eyes, video calling will continue to appeal only to the niche. Eye contact is hugely and ultimately important in visual conversation and even a small deviation away from the camera makes the experience of communication drastically different.

  7. peter Says:

    What about the n 95?

  8. Granny Joan Says:

    I actually remember talking on the phone pictured in the photo on the far bottom left hand side at the Hemisphere in San Antonio Texas in 1968. It was pretty hitech back then. One of my friends was instrumental in a company called 8×8 that was a leader in introducing video phones in early 2000′s.

    Apple may be the key to actually getting this technology off the launch pad and used by many.

  9. Tom Ross Says:

    And just by the way, I don’t see why iPhone 4 wouldn’t support Skype video chat as well. The hardware and the OS frameworks are there, and Skype will probably have their software ready within 3 to 12 months.

  10. Gordon Baker Says:

    About 10 years ago our mobile phones have video calling in G3 at Australia, europe and Asia, but in all America banned for video calling, SMS and MMS in G3 mobile phone now.

  11. Gordon Baker Says:

    iPhone 4 , Apple always steals a lot of copies from HTC, Nokia, Samsung, Sony and Motorola & etc , they have twin cameras for video chat calling.

  12. biff martin Says:

    the number one reason for the continual failure of the video phone will be the fact that very few people want to show their faces when talking. their hair or makeup is not right. the lighting is too dark, or they are having a bad wrinkly face day. There are lots of places where you cannot take pictures or video, such as in the Mens Restroom or the Womens locker room at the gym. (EEK, YOUR SHOOTING VIDEO NOW, IM NOT DRESSED, YOU BEECH!)

  13. hotrao Says:

    Is really strange to see how much imagination was put into communication in the last 2 centuries.

    And is amazing to see how much is closer to what we are using in our time.

    Thinking at a reduction factor by 10 (means we are about 10 time faster in obtaining the results), I wonder which will be our way of communicating between next 20 years.

    I think of 3d communication (olograms & co), immersive augmented reality and nearly doubled transmission speed.

    What's your opinion?

  14. Lady Astor Says:

    Couldn´t agree more!
    I´m getting somewhat fed up with how intrusive new tech is becoming…

  15. Tom Says:

    Whats wrong with you people, deaf peiople has using Videophones, it is closer to 1 million users. The standard for videophones used by the deaf people already has been established, they can communicate with different brands of videphone (crossover brands). Check the websites, sorensonvrs.com, zvrs.com, purple.com, conovo.com, (for informative website) zvrs.com….

  16. Amy Cohen Efron Says:

    I am very disappointed with this slide show, and they are no mention about specific videophones or video relay services for the Deaf and hard of hearing individuals. YOu have presented pictures with products for the customers in general, but nothing mentioning about deaf people who feels that the videophone is a godsend to the community. Please check my video clip which I've created which really shows the deaf perspective of the videophones.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2X9QB7xwQ0

    Amy Cohen Efron

  17. Tim at IMM Says:

    The funniest thing about this article is that in 1910 they thought that women would still be wearing big feathery hats and floor-length dresses in the year 2000! LOL

    Also isn't it odd that on the videophones with handsets the people shown on the video screen are never seen holding a handset to their ear? How does that work?

  18. Iesha Dennis Says:

    Look at what we have now. From a simple videophone to an innovative gadget. Who would have though that a gadget such as an iPhone will be created?

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