Picturephones: The Gimme Technology That Wasn’t

The latest in a series of tales inspired by past visions of a perfect future.

At the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, AT&T unveiled the future of communications technology: the picturephone. A seemingly natural combination of the phone and the television, it promised to revolutionize interpersonal dialogue.


Obviously, it didn’t quite work out that way. Why did something that seemed like such a gimme turn out to be such a bust?

For starters, it wasn’t such a gimme after all. Bandwidth was so limited that a coast-to-coast picturephone call cost several hundred dollars an hour. What’s more, the picturephone’s utility was limited by the size of its network. “For it to be valuable, you needed a lot of other people to have it too,” says Michael Wish, director of customer research at AT&T Labs. “There was no value in simply having one on your desk.” And most folks were in no hurry to have one on their desks. “Around 1971, I surveyed 173 executives in the Chicago area,” recalls Wish. “The bottom line was, there were virtually no business situations for which the picturephone was best.”

Undaunted, in 1976, AT&T set up the Picturephone Meeting Service, an in-house network that allowed video-conferencing among the company’s various offices. The idea was for the system to serve as a showcase to potential customers. (“Large, multilocation companies are particularly interested in the service,” boasted a 1976 promotional film.) That technology never took off, not even within AT&T–and even today, most conferencing products run thousands of dollars and are rooted to corporate boardrooms.

Indeed, the biggest constraint on the picturephone has always been the lack of portability: Users had to sit there in front of a stationary camera. But today’s picturephone descendants, such as iChat, IVE, and other Webcam-based applications, can go with you anyplace you bring your laptop. And your laptop can now transmit images wirelessly. All of which means the picturephone may finally be ready for its close-up.

It certainly is for Liz Danzico, an information architect whose family frequently communicates via Webcam. “New technologies are initially patterned on old models,” she says. “So with the Webcam, the tendency is to sit in front of it and talk, because that’s what you do on the phone. But then you realize you can get up and show people things, which is pretty transformative. My brother, who’s overseas, showed us how he had taught 250 students how to do the chicken dance [via a Webcam], which proved that this enables more than just facial recognition.”

Danzico thinks lots of other people will be Webcamming soon as the technology gets integrated into… everything. Apple’s new MacBook Pro laptop, for one, has a Webcam built right into the frame, just above the monitor, and Tandberg’s server-based technology supports live video from a third-generation cell phone. Baked-in technology will solve the network problem, and we’ll be able to take it with us–so anyone, anywhere, can see us chicken-dance. For better or worse.