Video Calling: Why Now?

By Mariette Johnson Wharton, VP of Marketing

The History

For at least a century and probably millenia, people have imagined a technology for seeing and talking to others miles away.

A video calling vision from 1910.

The challenge, of course, has been matching reality to the dream. For decades, attempts at making video calling appealing were a big disappointment. Three critical factors were the culprit: quality, cost and convenience.

More than 50 years ago, the pioneering picture phone was invented. AT&T’s version was first unveiled at the New York World’s Fair and Disneyland in 1964.

People loved the concept but it was too confusing, too expensive ($900 a month for 30 minutes in today’s dollars) and too low in bandwidth (freeze-frame) to move beyond a demo.

  • Quality
    Connection speeds were excruciatingly low, resulting in low-quality (frozen or choppy) video and audio. Video on dial-up could not have been fun.
  • Cost
    Costs were impossible. In the 1960s, a video call was $60 a minute (in today’s dollars). In the 1970s, it was $900 for 30 minutes (in today’s dollars). Even the 1990s, video phones themselves were cost-prohibitive ($1500).
  • Convenience
    Early attempts at video calling were insanely inconvenient (callers sat in tiny booths and followed confusing prompts). Later attempts required people to use IP addresses instead of calling regular phone numbers.

No wonder it didn’t catch on.

Video conferencing has been in popular culture for the last four decades.

Think TV’s The Jetsons, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the Dick Tracy comic strip where video communications are everywhere.

In today’s TV show Go, Diego, Go, five year-olds use video watches! (Frustrated by their inability buy them, our sons made their own video watches.)


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