A Brief History of Video Conferencing: From the Beginning to Full Commercial Use

Alina Krukova
August 28, 2019
Alina Krukova
Categories: News Reviews

Photo: Flashbak

Video conferencing systems, so familiar to us today, have come a long way — more than a hundred years passed from fantastic ideas inspired by belief in unstoppable technical progress to the first mass implementation of video conferencing systems. A lot of dramatic events have come along the way. The way to success wasn’t easy at all.

From Hoover’s First Greeting to World War II

The idea of ​​video communication systems originated in minds of profound engineers a long time ago. Approximately at the end of the 19th century, the first experiments on television suddenly made it clear that the communication systems of the time could not only transmit audio or telegraph signals but also video to the long distances. Nevertheless, several dozens of years passed from the time the concept has been formed until its first physical implementation. After all, the most basic video communication requires at least four interrelated components: audio transmission facilities, wire or radio channels with sufficient bandwidth, image capture device or camera, and a display system or monitor. And don’t forget to make it double.

Audio transmission was relatively simple, video transmission was not – in fact, it was the video that posed the real problem for many years. The first stable and operational TV cameras entered the market only in the second half of the 1920s. It coincided with consistent transmission of live moving image. The stage was all set for another communication revolution.

In 1927, AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories (later Bell Labs) created the world’s first working TV communication complex. Herbert Hoover’s live moving image was transmitted over cable to New York, at a distance of more than 199 miles. This historic event was even captured on newsreel.

Bell Labs Two-Way Television, 1928
Illustration: Early Television

Display of the first television system by Bell Telephone Laboratories. The main picture shows the screen back, the upper left corner represents the front panel.
Photo: Early Television

On the same day, another video session was set up. Video and audio were broadcasted via radio channel to a New York studio from Whippany, New Jersey. The overall distance was over 22 miles (the signal was also transmitted by wire from Washington to Whippany). In both cases, it was a one-way visual communication, while the conversation was pure audio. In addition, to transmit the Hoover’s image a whole infrastructure had to be deployed. The necessary equipment occupied a large room, while a special group of qualified engineered maintained the subsystems and ensured their correct operation.

These cases generally fall within the history of television, and only some common points somehow connect them to the video conferencing as we know it. However, it is also obvious that both technologies have common roots and happened at the same time. The first full-fledged version of a two-way audiovisual telecommunication system was demoed by AT&T only three years later. The year 1930 can fairly be considered the birth year of video communication in its modern sense. In 1931, a new public demonstration was held—a two-way video communication session was held between two AT&T offices in Manhattan.

Although image transmission systems were still too complicated and unreliable, at that point it seemed that all technological barriers would soon collapse and video communication would become as commonplace as a phone conversation. After all, the USA and developing countries of Western Europe were going through a time of unprecedented prosperity, of economic and cultural growth. It seemed that all dreams could come true and the human ingenuity hit an all-time high. However, the love, peace and harmony ended quite soon—the Great Depression erupted in 1929, hampering the development of television communications.

It was only in the second half of the 1930s that video communication was brought to the table, surprisingly, by Germany. In 1936, the year of the XI Summer Olympics in Germany, Georg Schubert, a German inventor, presented the first operating system—the prototype of modern video telephony—that could already be used for commercial purposes.

World’s first public video telephone service by Georg Schubert. Berlin, 1936.
Photo: PRmuseum

Initially, the connection was set over a coaxial cable between Berlin and Leipzig (about 100 miles). The system called Gegensehn-Fernsprechanlagen (“visual telephone system”) eventually operated with more than 620 miles of coaxial cable transmission lines. The video phone consisted of a display, a camera, lighting devices, and a regular telephone. Video call booths were deployed in post offices where you could make calls to the same communication points located in other cities.

However, the expansion plans were discontinued in 1939 with the start of the Second World War, burying the idea of ​​video communication again, until the second half of the 1950s. From that moment, the technology entered its new cycle.

High Hopes of AT&T

AT&T entered the scene again. Despite the world cataclysms, the company did not abandon the idea of ​​creating a commercial video phone. Almost three decades of hard work – and here it was again, another prototype of a two-way video communication system. Although it only transmitted one frame per two seconds, the system provided a fairly clear and stable image (180 lines, 40 kilopixels per frame at 25 frames per second). The project was quite successful – it paved the way for the first commercial implementation of Picturephone Mod I by AT&T in 1959. The working video phone was presented at the World’s Fair in New York on April 20, 1964.

AT&T enabled visitors to the fair to make video calls lasting up to 10 minutes. The second meeting room was located at Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California. During the demonstration, random people communicated with each other.

According to Jon Gertner, author of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation:

“[A] visitor who wanted to try a Picturephone would enter one of seven booths and sit before what was called a “picture unit.” The device was a long oval tube, measuring about one foot wide and seven inches high and about a foot in depth. Set within the oval face was a small camera and a rectangular video screen, measuring four and three-eighths inches by five and three-quarter inches. The picture unit was cabled to a touch-tone telephone handset with a line of buttons to control the screen. If you wanted to make a Picturephone call at the fair — or more precisely, if you wanted to talk with the Picturephone users at other booths — you simply pressed a button marked “V” for video; after that you could either talk through the handset or through a speakerphone on the picture unit.”

Regardless of the number of booths, video chatters viewed a vertical black-and-white 30 fps image, but had to stay perfectly motionless within a 16 x 21-inch frame to stay in view at the other end. A single button push could disconnect the video connection at either end.

AT&T Picturephone Mod I Demonstrated at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York
Photo: Mashable

All-in-all, it was a good advertising trick that made everyone talk about a new technology. In two months, a Picturephone commercial service was launched. The meeting rooms were organized in New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. You had to make advanced reservations, and both parties had to show up on time at their designated Picturephone locations for the chance to chat, which was very inconvenient, especially for busy businessmen who were the target audience for the product. The pricing wasn’t so affordable: a three-minute conversation cost $16; 15-minute talk could cost as much as $80 (equivalent of approximately $130 and $650 in 2018 dollars). As a result, the project turned out to be commercially unprofitable and was soon curtailed.

Nevertheless, AT&T blindly believed in the video conferencing potential and tried to make a more portable variation of PictureMod. In 1969, the company presented Picturephone Mod II, a compact office video communication system. 5 x 5.5-inch screen transmitted a monochrome 251-line, black-and-white image at 30 fps.

Communication Session with AT&T Picturephone. You could transfer not only video, but also charts and diagrams
Photo: ALAN BAND/KEYSTONE (GETTY IMAGES)

An updated Picturephone service was launched in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 30, 1970. In contrast to the previous version, the service connected company’s branches within the same city. The service cost about $160 per month (~ $1,300 today), plus $0.25 for every minute of conversation over the 30 minutes that were included in the subscription fee. Later on, Picturephone became available in other cities within AT&T telecom network.

Five years after the service was launched, there were only eight video phones in Pittsburgh and only several hundred of phones throughout the United States. It was a highly expensive failure—between 1966 and 1973, AT&T invested about $1 billion ($6.6-6.7 billion today) in the Picturephone project. By 1974, the project was shut down.

Sheldon Heuser, AT&T’s corporate historian, called the videophone “the most famous failure in the history of the Bell system”. According to him, the failure was caused not only its ridiculously expensive price, but also somewhat vague value of the product for the end customers. ‘’It turned out that it wasn’t entirely clear that people wanted to be seen on a telephone,’’ Dr. Hochheiser said.

AT&T was not the only company that developed video communication at the time. In 1973, UK’s APO laboratory researchers developed and implemented the first experimental international video conferencing system that was initially deployed between two post offices—in London and Sydney. It was then used to connect Sydney with Melbourne.

On the Other Side of the “Iron Curtain”

The USSR also forged video telephony ahead. The first mention can be found in “Radio” magazine, edition No. 12 of 1961. At that time, the idea of ​​remote video communication no longer looked like a fiction, especially preceded by the first human journey into space. As reported in the magazine: “At the present time, residents of Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev can take advantage of a new communication tool called video phone.”

In the interview with I. Ravich, the Head of the Main Directorate of Intercity Telephone and Telegraph Communication of the USSR Ministry of Communications it is stated that video phone offices were deployed in Moscow, Leningrad (today’s Saint-Petersburg) and Kiev.

According to the technical specifications, the 625-line 25fps image was displayed on regular Rubin 102 and 202 TVs. Cameras were also installed in the video booths, the sound was transmitted via telephone channels. Video sessions could be held from 7:00 am to 11:00 am and from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm, when there were no television broadcasts. To transfer the signal between the cities, a multi-channel K-1920 system was used, allowing for simultaneous transmission of images and voice over coaxial cables.

Did they really implement this system? Most likely they didn’t. Anyway, it was not widely used and wasn’t more than just an experiment. In the USSR, accessible intercity video communication couldn’t be set up, although video telephony was clearly being developed. However, the real systems in action were more like video intercoms. In particular, the USSR patent database included the patent No. 164320 for an invention called Medical Video Phone, published on August 13, 1964. According to the inventor’s certificate: “Today there are video phones consisting of two or more sets…”. Hence, both the concept and the technology were well known to the Soviet scientists at that time.

1977 VTM-01 Two-Point Video Phone Installed in а USSR Maternity Hospital
Photo: LiveJournal

The medical video phone was designed to ensure that visitors could communicate with the patients located in isolation wards, wherever direct contact was not allowed. The invention was a two-point video phone designed to be used within the building.

The endpoint equipped with a small display and a camera was set up at the each end.

However, there were some differences between these devices. A patient endpoint was to be equipped with a built-in source of infrared radiation (and a suitable camera) that would provide sufficient illumination of a patient’s face in a darkened room, as with severe skin lesions, intense illumination could be painful to a patient. In addition, there was an additional screen in the ward to allow patients to check out how they looked and choose the most suitable foreshortening (that’s how developers took care of the patient’s psychological comfort). Visitors had a regular video endpoint equipped with a camera and a screen, not lightning though.

We don’t know when the first video phone was released in the USSR, but such devices were known to be imitedly used since the second half of the 1970s in some maternity hospitals and were called VTM-01.

One of the maternity hospitals with a video phone Installed. Kharkov Region, 1967
Screenshot: Youtube

An infrared flashlight was replaced with a mirror (obviously, for a happy mother to have a rough idea on how she looked). Users could make voice calls by an ordinary telephone without a dialer. The system also included a basic unit, a switching module, a PA amplifier, a broadcast receiver, and cables—a whole set of heavy equipment. In 1977, the set cost about 44,000 Soviet rubles (by comparison, the state price for VAZ 2101 car was 5,600 rubles) and yet these systems were sometimes installed.

Digital Networks and the Age of Internet

In 1976, video communication conquered Japan. Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) deployed a video conferencing network between Tokyo and Osaka for corporate use. Subsequently, IBM launched a video communication service to hold weekly briefs between its offices in the US and Japan. The communication channel bandwidth amounted to 48 kbps.

AtariTel Mitsubishi Luma Phone 1986 two way Picture Phone
Photo: Steven Verryt (Pinterest)

Since the emergence of digital telephone networks in 1980, video conferencing accelerated. It seemed that the right moment came, and AT&T decided to take revenge. In 1982, an incredibly expensive corporate Picturephone Meeting Service was launched. An hour of communication between the offices in New York and Los Angeles cost $2,380. In addition, users had to buy a set of equipment for $117,500 or lease it for $17,800. Unsurprisingly, the project failed and was shut down just a year after its launch.

The same year Compression Labs commercialized its own video conferencing system. The solution cost $250,000, an hour of conversation was $1,000. The price also didn’t contribute to wide distribution and the project was soon canceled. There were several other unsuccessful attempts from other companies. However, some success was achieved only in 1986 when PictureTel (today’s Polycom) created a relatively inexpensive video conferencing system that cost “only” $80,000, an hour of communication was priced at $100.

Mitsubishi also released a portable low-resolution video phone in the 1980s. Luma Video Phone cost about $1,500 and was equipped with black-and-white display and a built-in camera, transmitting one frame each 3-5 seconds.

In the early 1990s, we finally witnessed IP-based video conferencing and more efficient video compression technologies. The computer revolution of the 1980s drove a rapid rise in PC-based video conferencing.

The first PC-based video conferencing solution was created in 1991 by IBM and PictureTel. IBM provided PS/2 PC with OS/2 operating system, while PictureTel turned it into a video conferencing endpoint equipped with a camera, microphone, speakers, and specialized software. The system allowed 16 users to run eight video conferences simultaneously directly from their workplaces thanks to a PC-based software video conferencing server. The product entered the market in 1992 and cost $20,000 per one endpoint ($30 for an hour of communication).

That same year, restless AT&T decided to try its luck in the video conferencing arena again. They created VideoPhone 2500, a compact video phone with a built-in color LCD screen. Fist it cost $1,599.99 per phone, later on the company offered to rent a device at a price of $30 per day. But alas, no one wanted to pay so much for a video phone and in the end, no one was really interested in the service. In the end, AT&T abandoned this idea in a couple of years.

VideoPhone 2500: Another Unsuccessful AT&T’s Attempt to Enter the Video Conferencing Market
Photo: cryptonaut-in-exile

It was a home computer boom, and everyone was eager to get the most out of their very expensive computers. In early 1990s Tim Dorsey at Cornell wrote a program called CU-SeeMe, which became the first desktop video conferencing platform. And it came at just the right time.

Video Conference on PC-Based CU-SeeMe
Screenshot: Aaron Giles

The first operational version for Macintosh was released in 1992. It didn’t support audio transmission, which was added later in 1994. In 1995 they introduced group video conferencing and released CU-SeeMe for Windows.

Around the same time, Connectix launched QuickCam, the first commercial webcam. The device priced at $100 could only provide 320 x 240 pixel resolution with a grayscale colour depth of 16 shades at 60 frames per second, which would drop down to 15 frames per second if it was switched to a less basic 256 shades of gray (8-bit). In 1998, the QuickCam line was purchased by Logitech.

Connectix QuickCam, the first commercial webcam transmitting a black-and-white 320×240 image at 60 frames per second
Photo: Mozbot

Finally, video conferencing became available to a wide range of users, which signified a new stage in the technology development.

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