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Does This Remind Anyone of Something That Was At The Fair?

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This Alexa, "Call Home" spot on TV reminded me of something that finally may be coming 50 years late.

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I'm looking at you AT&T.

 

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Funny thing about videophones.  AT&T dangled them in front of us for 50 years, then Apple, Google and Skype delivered them to us all at once basically for free

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One of the reasons I posted this is because of all the things that were shown at the Fair, the picturephone is often regarded and stigmatized as the greatest "failure" of the Fair, failing to live up to its promise.  Maybe it now comes to fruition, 50+ years later.

I'm sure when it was shown, AT&T would provide all the hardware, software, and connections to make it work.  Unlike Skype (and today's phones), where you have to provide the hardware and connections for it to work.

 

Maybe it was for the best, because when I think back to how Ma Bell used to charge us:

Just to have a phone, whether used or not, I got a bill every month.

If I wanted a phone in the bedroom, I had to pay extra  (per month)

If I wanted to call someone in a neighboring town (out of the zone), I had to pay extra. 

If I wanted to make a long distance call (to another area code), I had to pay extra.  (I could save a little by calling after 9 pm.) These calls were charged by the minute.

So I start to wonder, exactly how much would it have cost to have and to use a picturephone in 1965?

 

Progress?  

 

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We still had a rotary phone service in my house until the mid 1990s because my dad refused to pay extra for touch tone service (another thing the phone company charged for)

Yes, AT&T's videophone was phenomenally expensive:

Quote

Of course, despite the promises of the good people at Bell Labs, the 1970s would not see broad adoption of the videophone. Service was expensive (about $169 per month, or almost $1000 adjusted for inflation) and by 1973 Bell only had 100 subscribers in the entire United States. By 1977, that number had dwindled to just nine.

https://paleofuture.gizmodo.com/a-brief-history-of-the-videophone-that-almost-was-1214969187

I suppose they could have reduced the price and made up for it in scale, but it would have to be a huge drop

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Interesting link.  Thanks for posting.

Reading the article it seems there were three reasons for failure of the picturephone in the 60's (and it wasn't the technology):

1) The person you were calling also had to have one.

2) All phone calls are an interruption.  Not wanting someone else to see what you look like before you were interrupted.

3) Cost.

I think 1 and 2 were more important, because people more affluent would be able to afford these "toys". 

The marketing was all wrong.

 

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From today's perspective it is easy to view communications in the sixties as crude and expensive, but considering the imposing limitations and costly equipment mandated by the analog technology available at the time, I think the capabilities were worthy of the period. Picturephones required a lot of analog bandwidth, which was in short supply. During the sixties I was busily involved in the telephone company transition from vacuum tubes to transistors, from low bit-rate data communications to speedier modems and early disc hard drives. In fact, I was involved in beta testing of the first FM data transmission technology replacing the ancient DC pulses of the old teletypewriters. It was a fascinating to experience the birthing pains of a whole new way to communicate.

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In the 70s I belonged to a club that occasionally would meet in the picture phone room - a room with several picture phones that AT&T would rent out for business meetings. We would get to "play" with the picture phones calling each other in the same room. On the models we used, there was a little mirror that would pop out from the camera lens and point to the table.  This would allow you to show printed documents to the other callers. The television image would flip when the mirror was engaged. I thought this little add-on had great potential. 

 

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Also, with AT&T as the legal monopoly provider of phone service and reaping a predictable profit from it, there wasn't much corporate interest in taking the risk on building out the infrastructure for a service that was anything but guaranteed success.

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LIFE, April 13, 1962, mentions the Picturephone at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I haven't found a reference to the extent of time it was there. At various times it was connected with Disneyland and the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. I once made plans with my cousins in California for them to be at the exhibit in Disneyland when I was at the museum in Chicago.

https://books.google.com/books?id=lk4EAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA12&lpg=PA12&dq=picturephone+at+museum+of+science+and+industry+years&source=bl&ots=8_7RZJ_0cW&sig=q0ylZlStusbevRC2U06klVgLIrk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiAu62K-oPeAhURG3wKHbc0AxYQ6AEwFnoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=picturephone at museum of science and industry years&f=false

Speaking of advances in technology, a machine that played TIC-TAC-TOE was a long-time part of the Bell exhibit at the museum, but it was built entirely from mechanical relays, not a computer program.

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A Picture Phone required 12 voice lines to be banded together for a video call. And that was the B&W model. So any picture call was automatically going to be at least 12 times the cost of a voice call. Since voice long distance was pretty expensive in 1964, it's easy to see why the novelty of a picture call rarely justified the cost.

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39 minutes ago, Bill Cotter said:

 So any picture call was automatically going to be at least 12 times the cost of a voice call. Since voice long distance was pretty expensive in 1964, it's easy to see why the novelty of a picture call rarely justified the cost.

That's why I listed it at number 3 on my list.  It seemed to me that cost was the least likely reason the picturephone did not take off.  I remember reading of the introduction of television, where "affluent" people were buying sets even though there were only one or two broadcast stations in their area.  Heck, even in my town, one of my neighbors (at about 11 miles away), bought a color television set when only Disney was broadcasting in color.

I think the "affluent" people would have bought into the picturephone as one of their "toys", making it more of a success than it was, except for reason number one, but more likely reason number two. 

 

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There's a lot more discussion that can be had about the financing of capital improvements in the regulated Bell System vs. the heavily debt-leveraged unregulated cable systems and later cellular phone systems. Bell did not need to supply the phones to continue making a profit, as their rates were regulated to guarantee a "fair" profit. On the negative side, regulation prevented them from cross subsidizing between local service, long distance, and innovative services. Cable TV companies, on the other hand, needed the additional income from set top box rental to help service their tremendous debt for capital expenses, though they stubbornly denied it (probably because they wanted to avoid inviting potential government regulation). When legislation was passed allowing customers to purchase their own cable TV terminal equipment, the cable operators did not make it easy (some would say they deliberately made it nearly impossible). If the cable companies had become regulated, they would still have made a (smaller, guaranteed) profit, like Bell, but their lenders would have done a much smaller business, and the build-out may have been slower. On the other hand, while the Bell monopoly did tremendous research, they mainly applied it to improving POTS (plain old telephone service) over their copper wire home connections. 

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Wayne, thanks for posting that Life magazine link.

I’m moving, and digging through ancient strata of belongings including magazines. I’ve always enjoyed old ads but was struck this time through by the ubiquity of reel to reel home tape machines. I believe it was a 1969 mag. Not only were there numerous ads for the players but they even appeared prominently in the cartoons. No 1969 home was complete apparently without the twin circles of a reel to reel sketched in background. 

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