I’ll tell you how the video call was born


Each of us, in the latter period, has found themselves using tools videoconferencing. For business meetings, to talk with loved ones, for the education of children, for games or live on social networks, video calls they introduced us to a new world. We are in 1964, at the World Fair, the largest fair in New York and the world then. The fair seems to be a memorable event! All inventors and innovation enthusiasts they present something futuristic. The aim is to amaze! It is the beginning of an unstoppable development, which will lead to continuous improvement in all areas of our lives.

America and Russia have just kicked off space missions and technological development runs almost faster than the ideas of the inventors …! Italy is also present at the fair: the P101 is presented by Olivetti, the first PC in history. There are also Bell Laboratories, also known as Bell Labs, previously called AT&T Bell Laboratories: research and development laboratories that took their name from the American telecommunications company AT&T and Alexander Graham Bell, who founded them. The company is the hotbed of innovative technologies that have won 7 Nobel prizes for: transistors, lasers, radio astronomy, the UNIX operating system and the C and C ++ programming languages. Also here the Bell Labs present, with great appeal and amazement, the Picturephone: the first prototype of video telephony. The Picturephone was the culmination of several previous inventions since the 1920s in England, thanks to John Logie Baird, and in the United States, also thanks to AT&T Bell Labs. The very strange thing was that the first project of AT & T’s Bell Labs did not aim at the principle of the video call itself (that is, combining the video signal with the audio one), but rather aimed to make people with hearing disabilities talk to each other through the video signal and thanks to sign language. The main problem was that of conveying a video signal on the telephone lines which was processed and transformed in the transmission and reception phases. The Picturephone was an incredible design element: it was a system formed by a classic telephone and a one screen where you could see the person on the other side of another Picturephone in black and white, and from an audio speaker that reproduced the interlocutor’s audio hands-free. It was the news of the year! Everyone talked about it and visitors to the fair were thrilled with this invention!
However, despite the immediate installation of public Picturephones in New York, Chicago and Washington and despite the massive launch of the Picturephone in the city of Pittsburgh, the project turned out to be a flop. Yet the management of AT & T’s Bell Labs made long and accurate internal tests and a huge market investigation. The results convinced the company that the product liked it, that it was technologically feasible and economically sustainable, so much so that it chose to market it in the late 1970s. The company’s ambition was to sell more than one million Picturephones in the first 10 years, against an investment of almost half a billion dollars (at the time). The development, however, after a couple of years from the launch was stopped and the Picturephone was withdrawn from the market. At the moment there were only 50 large active users and about 200 functioning units.

What were the reasons for this failure? The main mistake was to ask for opinions from groups within the company, related in some way to the product, and to the staff employed in large companies and institutions, rather than neutral people. The service, then, despite being innovative and revolutionary, it did not prove immediately appealing. This is because the cost for the requested bandwidth was very high and, despite the fact that the manufacturer had tried to reduce it by about half, there was little result. It was also understood that people were not so convinced of appearing on video because they were afraid of the image they could have given to the interlocutor. It is said of an AT & T’s Bell Labs executive who, in order to be able to move during a video call, put a photo of himself in front of the screen. In addition, another “interesting” aspect was that people wanted the opportunity to physically move during a phone call, “stretching the wire” or using cordless phones (which at the time were very successful).

Only from the 90s, with new technologies, it was possible to overcome part of the economic difficulties and, only towards the 2000s, with the first IP phones, predecessors of today’s smartphones, was it possible to definitively overcome the problem of costs. In recent years, however, albeit with significantly different technologies, the video call failed to emerge so much. Then came the COVID-19 and with him the needs to feel loved ones, to be able to hold video conference meetings for work, to be able to follow school lessons. We realized that we can see who we want when we want, that we can save on travel expenses, that we can learn even without the need for physical contact. We realized that technology, after all, it always reminds us that we are all human beings.

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