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Our love affair with the videophone? It’s complicated, actually.

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Jan. 18, 2013 — In an age of Skype and FaceTime and the apparently imminent Google Glass, we embrace technologies that let us see whoever is on the other end of the line. But this wasn’t always the case. Back in the day, the videophone was viewed with ambivalence at best and suspicion at worst. So what changed?

Before we answer this, let’s take a look at earlier versions of the videophone and how consumers responded to them. The technology dates back to the 1920s, but the first large-scale public demonstrations took place in the summer and fall of 1964. AT&T showed off its Mod I Picturephone at the New York World’s Fair in August and September of that year, with one group and six individual calling booths connected to a similar exhibit at California’s Disneyland.

The demonstration was a tremendous success. Most of the nearly 700 users who participated in a post-video call survey gave the Picturephone a high rating, many of them noting that it added a personal touch to long-distance service. Forty-five percent said they saw a need for the Picturephone in their homes.

(This may have had something to do with the set-in-the-future cartoon The Jetsons, which aired during the 1962-1963 season and featured TV-based telephones among other, less likely technologies. The flying car that folds into a briefcase might still be out of reach but now, thanks to AT&T, consumers could at least have the videophone. See: The Tech of Tomorrow, But Not Really)

In the 1960s and ’70s, AT&T unsuccessfully marketed videophones including the 1972-73 Mod II Picturephone (a shoebox-sized electronics unit is not shown here). The Picturephone required additional wiring, and thus wasn’t compatible with existing phone lines. Also, a three-minute call between New York and Washington cost $16 — in 1964. Courtesy of Richard Diehl /

And yet, despite ongoing efforts, the Picturephone never caught on. By the early 1970s, after decades of cultivating the technology and an estimated $500 million in R&D costs between 1966 and 1973 alone, AT&T was acknowledging that the Picturephone wasn’t meeting expectations. By 1976, the company had effectively stopped marketing the technology.

In a 2004 paper in the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change, authors Steve Schnaars and Cliff Wymbs offered five reasons why the Picturephone failed. Cost and a depressed economy were factors, they wrote, as was a lack of critical mass: No one wanted to buy the device because no one else had one.

Also, notably, the Picturephone met no consumer need. After the initial flush of excitement, people started reporting that they didn’t necessarily want the technology in their homes. It would add little to their conversations, they said. And besides, they didn’t like the idea of being observed over the phone. Schnaars and Wymbs wrote that, according to an informal survey, some residential customers would pay extra not to have the service — much like they would pay extra not to have their number listed in the phone book.

The idea that videophones somehow represented an invasion of privacy persisted. Why would you want such a thing anyway? people asked. What if you were just getting out of the shower when the phone rang? What if the person on the other end of the line could see the stack of dirty dishes behind you?

Even in 1992, in a New York Times opinion piece, communications professor A. Michael Noll sniffed when AT&T introduced a new, $1500 videophone. “Consumer psychology does not seem to favor a video telephone product,” he argued in “Videophone: a flop that won’t die.” “People do not want it.”

Not everyone agreed, though. Letters to the editor in response to the piece suggested that the videophone’s time had come, because the latest generation of the technology worked with regular phone lines — making it more accessible — but also because demand had finally caught up with the videophone.

One of the letters noted that people both young and old were “purchasing all sorts of devices designed to free them from unwanted, routine and dull telephone calls and opting for services that increase their control and enjoyment of their communications.” Another reminded readers that families were now, more than ever, living far apart, and that videophones could afford them a rare opportunity to see one another. Still another said, simply: “The cowards can stick to the regular telephone. I want to be seen! And heard!”

Next: Are we now a nation of exhibitionists?
Jan 2013
A. Michael NollAT&TCliff WymbsCommunicationsDifferent WavelengthsFaceTimeGary BoasGary Boas BlogGoogle GlassmaterialsMod IMod IIPicturephoneSkypeSteve Schnaarsvideophone

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