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Nervous System: The First Video Call
Today’s ubiquitous video-calling technologies (such as Skype and Zoom) had been available for years before the circumstances of a global pandemic hastened their widespread adoption. But the very first video call was made nearly a hundred years ago, by Herbert Hoover. Further, Hoover made this auspicious call several years before he was elected president.
On April 8, 1927, then–Secretary of Commerce Hoover sat before a camera at a Bell Labs facility in Washington, DC, and delivered a spoken address to visitors watching on a screen at AT&T’s corporate office in New York. Hoover held a telephone handset to his head as he spoke the awkwardly worded pronouncement: “Today, we have in a sense, the transmission of sight for the first time in the world’s history.” AT&T President Walter Gifford carried on a phone conversation with Hoover, but the video was limited to the crude, jerky 18-frame-per-second transmission of Hoover’s face.
The next morning’s New York Times reported that the video quality was poor and Hoover’s face could not be clearly distinguished throughout. Nevertheless, news of the event caught the public’s imagination and inspired visions of futuristic videophones in such films as Metropolis and Modern Times. The technology was still in its infancy, of course, and it would be decades before television, much less video telephone calls, was a viable commercial product.
By the time of the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, AT&T felt it had a commercial product ready for its debut. Placed around the Fair were eight “PicturePhone” booths where guests could make video calls to one another or, more alluringly, to a booth installed at Anaheim’s Disneyland.
That summer, AT&T introduced commercial PicturePhone booths in New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC. For the fee of $27 (approximately $270 in today’s dollars), one could made a three-minute-long video call to someone in a corresponding PicturePhone booth in one of those three cities.
Few did. As 1964 came to an end, just seventy-one video calls had been made, and even that trivial demand was dropping off.
Undeterred, AT&T continued development of a desktop PicturePhone device for individual use. Instead of a public booth that one had to seek out, this sleek, stylish item combined a screen and camera into one compact, eye-pleasing shape. Much like with today’s videoconferencing tools, the user could swap modes to share a document placed before the unit. This functionality was included from the beginning, on the assumption that business users would be the most likely early adopters.
Because the devices required different wiring than standard telephones, PicturePhones were not available nationwide. Instead, the service rolled out first in Pittsburgh in 1970 and then Chicago by 1971.
The cost was substantial. Users paid $160 a month to rent the device and subscribe to video service. In today’s dollars, that is roughly $1,300 a month or just over $15,000 a year—not to mention additional fees that applied if usage exceeded 30 minutes of video calls a month.
Nonetheless, AT&T confidently projected that a million such devices would be sold and installed over the next decade.
“Some people in Pittsburgh are seeing voices,” read a magazine advertisement promoting the PicturePhone. The clever marketing ploy, however, concealed a troubling undercurrent. A strong sales pitch was needed because consumer demand was shaky. Aside from the luxury pricing, AT&T’s market research conducted at the World’s Fair had found that roughly half of the people who tried out a PicturePhone booth did not actually think seeing the person on the other end of a telephone call was worthwhile. The initial trial of PicturePhone booths in the summer of 1964 had been a disappointment. As a business tool, the PicturePhone screen’s low resolution made it more of a gimmick than a viable way to share documents remotely. As a household appliance, it made many consumers worry about being judged on their appearance when they just wanted to make a simple call.
These hurdles proved difficult to overcome. Far from selling a million units, AT&T found that it had yet to reach even 500 customers by 1973. The company reluctantly abandoned the PicturePhone project, which for years stood as an example of a corporate embarrassment.
Research and development on video conferencing continued, and over time the services improved while costs came down. For both business users and households, the use of video-calling tools now has become routine. The pandemic-era’s restrictions on direct personal interactions created circumstances that helped the public overcome biases that had hindered enthusiasm for the technology previously.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, position, or policy of Berkeley Research Group, LLC or its other employees and affiliates.