In the annals of technologies with long gestation periods, few can match video telephony. Punch's Almanack published a cartoon illustrating the concept way back in 1878. Then, throughout the next century, the idea resurfaced repeatedly in science-fiction comics, motion pictures, pulp stories, and novels. In the animated TV series "The Jetsons," starting in 1962, George's boss, Mr. Spacely, regularly appeared on a display screen to show George the latest sprocket design. In a memorable scene from the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, a weary space traveler videophones his daughter from a space station orbiting Earth.
Around the same time, videophones began showing up in the real world. AT&T announced its Picturephone service in 1964; the company even installed a Picturephone booth at New York City's Grand Central Terminal. But at US $16 per 3 minutes of jerky images, the service never caught on.
Nevertheless, as with flying cars and jet packs, there is something about video telephony that people just can't let go of. And unlike flying cars and jet packs, a videophone is something you almost certainly have access to already, in the form of your computer, your smartphone, and almost every gizmo that communicates. The biggest computer firms have embraced the trend: Microsoft is now buying Skype for $8.5 billion to further strengthen the video telephony capabilities already built into Microsoft Lync, Windows Live Messenger, and a number of other products. Apple's got FaceTime, and Google has begun rolling out multiuser video chat in its emerging Google+ social network.
With the exception of road warriors checking in with their kids at home, however, for most of us video telephony still isn't a part of our daily lives. But allow us to go out on a limb: It will be, and within just a couple of years.
The rap on video telephony is that people just didn't want it in their homes. They didn't want people seeing them bleary eyed and mussed in the morning (or any other time, for that matter). Nor did they want their callers seeing that they were flipping through mail or making a grocery list while chatting on the phone.
So equipment manufacturers turned to the corporate world, introducing pricey videoconferencing systems designed to replace on-site meetings and reduce travel costs. While many companies invested in the technology in the 1990s, it typically gathered dust, unused. It looked as though people didn't want it anywhere.
Call us eternal optimists, but we believe that this conventional wisdom is wrong. For one thing, the vast majority of personal telephone calls occur between spouses or close relations: parents and children, siblings, and so on. These people have already seen each other bleary eyed and mussed (and would probably overlook a little grocery-list making or other multitasking). We think the main reason people haven't embraced video telephony is that it has been clunky, owing to technical obstacles that prevented it from being done well. But most of all, videophone equipment was considered too expensive for most people for their private use.
One by one, those obstacles—hardware, networking, compression—have fallen away. And the final roadblock—standardization and interoperability—is teetering.
Let's start with hardware. Video telephony isn't all that complicated. It needs four basic things: a microphone and a camera to capture sounds and images, and a loudspeaker and a monitor screen to re-create them.
The call, of course, also needs a network to connect across. And there's one more basic requirement: a system to compress the data. The signals captured by the microphones and cameras contain more information than can be sent across the available communications networks, wired or wireless—and more than is necessary for an adequate video call. So the final piece of the videophone tech puzzle is a means for compression. On the sending end, a microprocessor and its software act as an encoder, compressing the signal—that is, reducing the number of bits that represent the video and audio data so they can be sent in real time over the available connection, be it wired or wireless. Of course, what gets encoded on one end must be decoded on the other; on the receiving end the microprocessor reassembles the audio and video from the bits. The compression system eliminates a vast amount of data, because today's communications networks, even broadband ones, don't have nearly enough throughput to send all the data created by the cameras and microphones.