Friday, March 9, 2007

Picturephone as the perpetual technology of the future

As a follow-up to Wednesday's post about the Picturephone, I encourage you to read Frederic D. Schwarz's piece in Invention & Technology magazine.

"Unlike car phones, Picturephone never had long lists of people waiting to sign up. And periodic attempts to revive the concept with modern technology have never taken off. AT&T's color VideoPhone flopped in 1992, as did a wireless version launched in 2000. Even today, with transmission of voice and images over the Internet becoming routine, services that combine the two, while popular among homesick expatriates in Silicon Valley, remain a niche product at best."

"Most people simply don't want to see or be seen by the person they're talking to...."


Unknown said...

I think the issue is that video doesn't really add anything to the medium. This isn't to say that vision isn't important! We're visual creatures after all.

First, video doesn't add nearly the same number of channels as in person conversation does. We've got a fixed point of reference for one. No real depth cues.

What video really does is narrow your options around the edges. Nobody _just_ talks on the phone. You use that time to do things that would be rude in a face-to-face conversation. I'm reminded of this every time I catch someone in a bathroom on their cellphone. Which happens daily.

I think the real issue is the "phone" metaphor. That wasn't a natural metaphor originally, but was so powerful that people adapted to it. Video phones don't have the same draw.

But the idea does live on in real-world implementation that has millions of users- MMORPGs. _Especially_ ones like "Second Life", but even WoW has people that use it as a social gathering. Here, we get the added dimension of visual cues, but without the need for full-on devoted attention. We delegate the physical/visual side of the conversation to a computer generated stand-in.

Paul M. Cray said...

I wonder how much the failure of videophones has been because of cost/quality issues. Video requires a lot more bandwidth than audio and that doesn't work well over a copper last mile. As the cost of bandwidth for both wired and wireless phones, the quality of video for a given cost can go up.

But there are huge social factors working against videophones too. Having said that, if I could video call my mum (and in an example classic network effect problem, I do have a videophone), I would (if she had a videophone and calls cost the same as audio ones).

Paul M. Cray

Anonymous said...

(Speaking from 25 years in the telephone switching systems field.)

The reason videophones never caught is simple: Your home is a private place. You don't want to let potential strangers into your bedroom or kitchen or living room. And you don't want to let family and friends see you on six seconds' notice when you might be running around in a bathrobe or in the midst of some personal or private moment that would be unpresentable to others.

Videophone works for business teleconferences between offices, because under those conditions people are showing up for a specific appointment and can present themselves in a manner appropriate to the occasion. And note that most of those conferences are between groups of people, where visual "traffic cues" are useful in moderating the flow of conversation. Seldom do we hear of one-on-one video conferences, because the visual cues are unnecessary to the flow of conversation between two individuals who have normal hearing and speaking abilities.

Anonymous said...

As a kid I used to love the idea of videophone, but of course hadn't really thought the idea through. Closest thing to it that I've personally tried - the webcam - does nothing but make me uncomfortable, paranoid about looking presentable enough and sitting still enough, and distracted by seeing the other person.

But for my sister who is deaf, being able to make visual contact via computer and cellphone has made a world of difference! She can now sign to her deaf friends in real-time instead of text messaging.

Being rather disappointed by being in the 21st century and cars still running on the ground, houses being as square as ever and no sign of Robbie the Robot, at least when sis visited me last year, placed her cell on the coffee table and started having a conversation with a deaf person in another town, I finally started to feel that I was really living in that much-longed-for Future!