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Prophecies: video phones

It’s become a cliche to joke about how, even though it’s now the 21st century, we still don’t have jetpacks or flying cars. But it’s funny how some of the other futuristic concepts that we first encountered in science fiction have become realities, and they sneaked up on us so gradually that we didn’t even notice when they arrived.

Video phones, for example. As a grade-school pupil in the 1960s, I learned that “Picturephones” had already been invented, and in fact they were demonstrated at the 1964 World’s Fair. But they never actually showed up in people’s homes. The explanation I always heard was that nobody wanted them, but that was only part of the truth: in the 1960s, the technology for making video phone calls would have been terribly expensive, and few people would have found the benefits worth the cost. Whatever the reason, video phones remained in the realm of science fiction for the next several decades. (Remember Heywood Floyd’s video phone call to his daughter from a space station in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey?)

But a few years ago, it dawned on me that this technology wasn’t science fiction anymore. I was at a holiday gathering of my wife’s family in Charleston, SC, which was attended by almost everyone descended from her parents (four generations in all, comprising several dozen people). The notable exception was one of my wife’s nieces, who had married a Navy guy and was, as a result, in Hawaii. She and her husband and children were not able to attend the gathering in person, but they were able to participate in real time over the Internet. The computers at both ends had inexpensive video cameras (“webcams”) connected to them, and AOL had recently added videoconferencing capability to its instant-messaging client. Setting up a two-way video connection between South Carolina and Hawaii proved to be quite simple, and the conversation went on for several hours, with family members in both locations taking turns in front of the computer.

I don’t think anyone really thought of this as a “phone call”, probably because the participants weren’t talking into a handset. But in fact, this was indistinguishable from the Picturephone future that we were promised in the 1960s, except that it didn’t cost anything in addition to the AOL subscription fee the family was already paying. And, in fact, they were using AOL over a dial-up connection, so it really was a phone call. Video phones had arrived with no fanfare at all.

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