June 30, 2020

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The first commercial video call took place 50 years ago today

The first commercial video call took place 50 years ago today
With the advent of smaller cameras, and advancements in signal compression, switchboards and circuitry, AT&T was able to create the Picturephone Mod II for home and office use. It had a 5.5- by 5-inch black and white screen, with a 250-line resolution and a refresh rate of 30 interlaced frames per second. The camera had…

With the advent of smaller cameras, and advancements in signal compression, switchboards and circuitry, AT&T was able to create the Picturephone Mod II for home and office use. It had a 5.5- by 5-inch black and white screen, with a 250-line resolution and a refresh rate of 30 interlaced frames per second. The camera had a resolution equivalent to 0.8 megapixels.

The Mod II had an integrated mirror, too, which you could flip to either show yourself or documents on your desk or table — basically, an early form of screen sharing. AT&T charged $160/month to use it, the equivalent of a whopping $1,092 today, and you’d get a generous 30 minutes of call time.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the device didn’t take off. Only 450 or so Mod IIs were in use by 1973. The company had projected that 100,000 Picturephones would be active on its network by 1975.

The company, which plowed half a billion dollars into videophone research and development from the 1950s to the early ’70s, kept trying to make various incarnations of Picturephone a success until the ‘90s. It failed because of high costs, low demand and a supposed widespread societal reluctance not to be seen over the phone. 

Now, of course, billions of people have smartphones, tablets and computers with webcams, and many of us are more than happy to thrust our faces onto the internet and share our visages in video calls. Changed days, indeed. The Mod II might not have been the game changer AT&T had hoped at the time, but it was a key milestone in video calling technology. It’s certainly worth celebrating.

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