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Chances are you’ve used Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime in the past week. Video-conferencing is so entrenched in modern life, it’s hard to understand why a May 30, 1996, announcement by AT&T and Intel about their new PC-based videophone left some experts shaking their heads.

The Pentium processor and compression software had made video conferencing a feasible option and, as the 1996 Intel annual report pointed out, a videophone could show grandma your kiddo’s artwork across hundreds of miles. On the other hand, a commercial featuring Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander demonstrated a possible downside to videophone use.

The first “Picturephone”

The thing is, the idea had been tried before, without great success. As early as the 1880s, inventors and futurists dreamed of pairing a visual with Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. After several false starts over the next 80-something years, visitors lined up to try Bell Telephone’s Picturephone at the World’s Fair in 1964. From booths in New York, they spoke with fellow Picturephone users at Disneyland in California. You had to stand extremely still to stay in the picture, but it was a true video call. 

In June 1964, Bell made the Picturephone commercially available, with stations in New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. The only catch was the price: A three-minute Picturephone call cost $16, or more than $120 in today’s money. The Picturephone effort ended in 1972.

After the AT&T/Intel experiment failed to take off in the late 1990s, analysts continued to say no one wanted to be seen while talking on the phone. As recently as 2000, The New York Times quoted AT&T’s corporate historian as calling the videophone “the most famous failure in the history of the Bell system.” Another line from the same article: “… there are still people who believe that the videophone will someday become a fixture in the home.” Judging from the success of Skype, Zoom, and the like, it turns out people don’t mind being seen — they only mind paying extra money to buy equipment to be seen.

Photo: Hermes Rivera / Unsplash

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Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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