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A Brief History of Video Conferencing

  • History of Video Conferencing - Slide 1

    The Dawn of Video Communication: Late 19th Century - 1927

    Around 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 but also video signals over long distances. Nevertheless, several dozens of years passed from the time the concept had been formed until its first physical implementation. After all, according to a Michigan State University paper, titled “Memories: A Personal History of Bell Telephone Laboratories,” the most basic video communication requires at least four interrelated components: audio transmission facilities, wire or radio channels with sufficient bandwidth, an image capture device or camera, and a display system or monitor.
    Audio transmission was relatively simple; video transmission was not. In fact, it was 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. 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, as shown in the above slide.
  • History of Video Conferencing - Slide 2

    World's First Public Video Telephone Service

    In 1936, Georg Schubert developed the first working prototype of video telephony, consisting of a display, a camera, lighting devices, and a regular telephone. This system was first deployed in post offices. 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. However, the expansion plans were discontinued in 1939 with the start of World War II, burying the idea of video communication again, until the second half of the 1950s. From that moment, the technology entered its new cycle.
  • History of Video Conferencing - Slide 3

    Early Attempts to Develop Commercial Video Telephones

    AT&T entered the scene again straight after World War II. Despite the world cataclysms, the company did not abandon the idea of creating a commercial video phone. After almost three decades of hard work, 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.
    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.
  • History of Video Conferencing - Slide 4

    AT&T Strikes Again …and Fails

    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. A 5 x 5.5-inch screen transmitted a monochrome 251-line, black-and-white image at 30 fps.
    An updated Picturephone service was launched in Pittsburgh on July 30, 1970. In contrast to the previous version, the service connected a 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’s telecom network.
    Five years after the service was launched, there were only eight video phones in Pittsburgh and only several hundred phones throughout the United States. It was a highly expensive failure—between 1966 and 1973, AT&T invested about half a billion dollars ($6.6-6.7 billion today) in the Picturephone project. By 1974, the project was shut down.
  • History of Video Conferencing - Slide 5

    Behind the Iron Curtain: Video Conferencing Between Large Cities

    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 fiction, especially as it was preceded by the first human journey into space. Video phone offices were deployed in Moscow, Leningrad (today’s Saint-Petersburg), and Kiev. According to technical specifications, the 625-line, 25fps image was displayed on regular Rubin 102 and 202 TVs. Cameras were also installed in the video booths, with the sound 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. This system was not widely used and wasn’t more than simply an experiment.
    In some hospitals across the USSR, medical video phones were installed to ensure that visitors could communicate with 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 each end. 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 intense illumination could be painful to a patient with severe skin lesions.
  • History of Video Conferencing - Slide 6

    The Digital Era & the Attempts to Reinvent Video Conferencing

    After the emergence of digital telephone networks in 1980, video conferencing development and use accelerated. It seemed that the right moment had come, and AT&T decided to take a swing at redemption. In 1982, AT&T launched an incredibly expensive corporate Picturephone Meeting Service. An hour of communication between the offices in New York and Los Angeles cost $2,380. 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, and 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 in 1986 when PictureTel (today’s Polycom) created a relatively inexpensive video conferencing system that cost “only” $80,000, with an hour of communication 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 a black-and-white display and built-in camera, transmitting one frame every three to five seconds.
  • History of Video Conferencing - Slide 7

    CU-SeeMe: The First Tool for PC-based Video Communication

    In the early 1990s, we finally witnessed the birth of 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.
    In the early ‘90s, everyone wanted to make the most of inexpensive personal computers. During this time, Tim Dorsey at Cornell University wrote a program called CU-SeeMe, which became the first desktop video conferencing platform. The first operational version for Macintosh was released in 1992. It didn’t support audio transmission, which was added later in 1994. In 1995, group video conferencing was introduced and CU-SeeMe for Windows was released.
  • History of Video Conferencing - Slide 8

    The First Webcam

    The ‘90s also witnessed the advent of the first commercial webcam. It was developed by Connectix and was priced at $100. It could only provide 320 x 240 pixel resolution with a grayscale color depth of 16 shades at 60 fps, which would drop down to 15 fps if it was switched to a less basic 256 shades of gray (8-bit). In 1998, the QuickCam line was purchased by Logitech.

  • History of Video Conferencing - Slide 9


    Over the course of the 20th century, video conferencing came a very long way from being a mere scientific dream to a practical solution that serves everyday needs of individuals and businesses.
    A couple of the obstacles preventing video conferencing from coming to the market were its high price and technology underdevelopment. However, more efficient video compression technologies and the age of Internet made the technology more affordable, giving rise to the full-fledged commercial use of video conferencing we experience today.

A look at video communications technology development, from inception to full commercial use