The $2,000 FaceTime Box From 1987

The $2,000 FaceTime Box From 1987

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I am inside the VisiTel, 1987’s future of  video telecommunication. For the first time,   Mitsubishi’s Visual Telephone Display  meant an affordable videophone so that   you could see who was on the other end of  your RJ-11 cable – and they could see you. The only problem is that the Visitel videophone   doesn’t send video and you can’t  use your phone while it’s working.

Now your Grandma Myrtle accidentally FaceTimes you  for free because her Werther’s Originals-greased   fingers push the wrong button – but the dream  of video communication is older than you think,   was more expensive than you can imagine,  and caused the most innovative company   on the planet to flush half a  billion dollars down the toilet. But the biggest surprise of all is built into  our own evolution: despite spending millions   of years developing our visual systems so we can  instantly and expertly process facial expressions   and body language, despite our never ending  commitment to mastering all the complexities   of reading human appearance – it turns out we  may be better off not seeing each other at all. And while video conferencing is ubiquitous now,   from remote Zoom-ing and Google Meet-ing for  work to live, high-quality multi-user video   calls on iOS, Android, WhatsApp, Discord…  the thing is… almost nobody wanted this.

I grabbed the March 1988 issue of  Popular Science because I saw that   it featured a cover story about the dawn of  consumer-friendly video phones – here now   under $400! And they used your existing  phone lines without a premium charge. William J. Hawkins heralded the arrival of  Mitsubishi’s VisiTel, and he anticipated a   wave of similar devices from Sony, Sharp, and  all the other major electronics brands. And the   potential for the devices included augmenting  the shopping experience out of paper catalogs,   having your real estate broker show you  pictures of a house you’re interested in,   making sign language viable for phone  calls – and no more blind dates.

FINALLY. And Hawkins also predicted that  video phones could be hooked up   to peripherals like printers that  could make hard copies of the images,   or sending clips from home movies  you’d recorded on your camcorder. He actually got… a lot of that right. So I grabbed a pair of brand new, never  opened VisiTels off eBay – obviously you   need TWO of these things to work, or one person  is just sending pictures of their face out into   the ether. The box is… oddly hideous,  it’s covered with the Mitsubishi logo,  

but it looks like you’re about to  talk to Max Headroom with chicken pox. And there’s these brown splatters? I have no  idea how these brown splatters even happened. I do not want to know how these  brown splatters even happened. The unit itself is actually really cool,  it doesn’t look a lot different from the   newest gen of Amazon’s Echo Show – the VisiTel  has a 4 ½ inch black and white CRT screen with   a 96 x 96 pixel display resolution and  32 levels of grayscale – so obviously,   no color photos. The embedded camera is a 16mm  fixed lens with a 15” to 25” depth of field,   and there are 8 brightness control settings.

The back has an RJ-11 jack to  hook it up to your phone line,   and… that’s it. In an era of shockingly  complex devices, the VisiTel LU-500 was   pretty efficient and extremely user-friendly. To  turn it on you just slide open the lens cover of   the camera and it displays a video image of  you, ready for the other VisiTel user to see. So you just give Grandma a call and you  see her brand new dentures, right? Wrong.

Here’s what happens instead, I’ll  just connect these VisiTels to each   other to test them out. Hitting the “Send”  button takes a freeze frame photo and sends   that over the standard telephone  wire. And during that whole time,   you can’t talk AND you can’t hear the other  person. The receiving VisiTel unit then   rebuilds and mirrors the image properly for your  friend, family member, co-worker, or blind date. The problem with sending video over telephone  lines is simple actually: it’s the bandwidth.  

A phone line at the time carried about 3.5  kilohertz, so 3,500 pieces of information   could be sent per second. To put that into  perspective, TV required 4.5 million at the time. When you press and hold the “Send” button,  the VisiTel breaks down the 96x96 black and   white image into data representing picture  information and then holds it in Dynamic   Random-Access Memory – and then the pixels  from memory are read sequentially and used   to control the amplitude or volume of a  modulated audio signal with a 1,747-hertz   tone. Sending an image sounded like this.  The varying amplitude of the incoming signal  

is converted to a digital grayscale for each  pixel and is sequentially stored in the DRAM. So, it builds the picture over time.  Data from the DRAM are read out,   converted to an analog grayscale and  displayed on the end user’s screen,   and the VisiTel can store 3 of those images in  its memory as long as the unit remains powered on.

But what about phone lines  and connections that suck? They actually factored that into the  technology. Huge variances in phone-line   quality were mitigated by what’s called  a “preamble” – a tone burst was sent to   the receiving phone just ahead of the picture  so it knows the photo transmission is coming.   The whole start-to-finish transmission  and display process takes 5.5 seconds,   which was a major improvement over Sony’s  unit taking 10 seconds. And that’s for black   and white – Mitsubishi said color images  in future models would take 20 seconds.

Okay, so both of these units both  test fine – I should be able to   make a VisiTelephone call. I’m going to try  by giving one of these VisiTels to producer   Matt Tabor. I’ll teleport to 1988, and  show him my brand new copy of Mario 2. This was revolutionary  technology in the late 80’s,   but the promise of talking to video screens  started all the way back in the 70’s.

The 1870’s. The December 9th, 1878 issue of Punch Magazine  printed a George du Maurier illustration of   Thomas Edison’s “Telephonoscope” – a vision of a  future device that could transmit light as well   as sound. The image is an unbelievably prescient  artifact depicting an exciting, vibrant future   of instant visual telecommunication  over unfathomable distances, right? NO. The immediate reaction is to think  the drawing is an enthusiastic,   forward-thinking glimpse into the  future of technology – and actually,   a very smart one. That’s an example of presentism,  which is essentially interpreting past events and   evidence through modern attitudes and values.  We like it now, so they must’ve wanted it then! But this entire illustration was  part joke and part scathing critique.

It suggests that Edison was a crazy inventor  who worshiped an overly-enthusiastic,   techno-utopian future, and it mocks the  exaggerated potential of what a device   like a Telephonoscope would actually do for us. What the comic actually  depicts is “Discovery Mania.” Ivy Roberts described the phenomenon in “Visions  of Electric Media: Television in the Victorian   and Machine Ages” – the people reading Punch in  1878 weren’t anything like us. We look back and   assume that everyone was thrilled with  a burst of world-improving technologies   like electricity and photography, but  back then… there was a deep strain   of cynicism that saw these inventions as goofy  at best and ruinous at worst. It went beyond   the economic concerns of the Luddites – it was  really about whether we were changing our lives   for the worse as an emerging class of technocrats  promised us salvation. The “Telephonoscope” comic   wasn’t a techno-fantasy for a future video phone,  it was satire making fun of the very concept.

And it stayed that way for a while. The 1936 Charlie Chaplin film “Modern Times”  spoofs industrial society – it shows the   president of the Electro Steel Corp. using a large  video phone to oversee and direct his employees.   At the end of the scene, The Tramp sabotages the  phone by cranking on a bunch of levers and wheels. And 9 years before, Fritz Lang’s 1927  silent film “Metropolis” depicted a   future of industrialists high in skyscrapers  using video phones to communicate with the   overworked subterranean masses. It was  a grim, depressing vision of the future.

But what Fritz Lang didn’t realize was at  exactly the same time as “Metropolis” was   delighting millions and earning a spot in  every future film student’s course of study,   Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover – who  2 years later would be the 31st President   of the United States – successfully tested  a video phone prototype to both send and   receive video with AT&T President  Walter Gifford in New York City. As Lang and Chaplin were sounding alarm  bells through art, the future was already   happening – and the videophone’s “moment” was  meant to be the 1964 New York World’s Fair. A Bell Labs executive named Julius Molnar  had supported the development of a consumer   videophone technology that could be in every  home – he predicted that the “Picturephone   will be the primary mode by which people  will be communicating with one another." Picturephone booths were set up at the AT&T  Bell System Pavilion. Bell was on its way   to sinking half a billion dollars trying  to usher in the video phone revolution,   and they could finally showcase it on the  world’s biggest stage – they even had a   song for the Picturephone called the “Ballad  for the Fair:” You have to listen to this. In a place where electronic wonders abound A marriage of sight to the drama of sound  A wonderful coupling of vision and speech And a ride to the future and the past within reach It was all legitimately INCREDIBLE –  and It all went really, really badly.

Which is weird, because Bell Labs is probably the  most important, innovative company of the 20th   century – it’s impossible to capture Bell Labs’  influence on the modern world. Telephones and   transistors, vacuum tubes, long-distance calling,  transatlantic cables, radar, lasers, binary code   systems, photovoltaic cells, charged-couple  devices, ten Nobel Prizes. You’re watching this   video on a smartphone on your toilet because of  Bell Labs. They pushed the limits of technology   at all levels, government and household, and they  knew how to create the future better than anyone. The problem was… did anyone want their  telephone to show them in their underwear? More than 25 years before he served  as Project Lead on the “Where In The   World is Carmen Sandiego?” kids show, Howard  Blumenthal actually used the Picturephone at   the World’s Fair. He recalled that his junior  high crush Maria wasn’t crazy about having  

to get dressed up to talk on the phone,  and that his parents agreed with Maria. When Blumenthal wrote about the Mitsubishi  VisiTel, he said it had two problems:   not enough people had them, and they  were too expensive. But Bell Labs,   Blumenthal, and everyone else dancing on  the cutting edge of technology got it wrong. Maria was the one who got it right  – and maybe more than she realized. A 2021 study from Carnegie Mellon concluded that  video conferencing actually REDUCES collective   intelligence. But videophones can’t make you  dumber if you don’t want to be seen at all. In “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the  Great Age of American Innovation,” Jon   Gertner detailed the market research  Bell conducted at the World’s Fair.  

The majority of the 700 people surveyed said  that seeing the person they were talking to was   “very important,” so that was encouraging  – but what about being the one on display? The beauty of the telephone isn’t just that  it connects two people in real-time – it’s   that they can both connect comfortably. They can  sit on a couch or chair in any casual position,   unshowered, wearing old clothes, in a messy house,  flipping through a magazine or watching TV as they   talk – and the other person doesn’t know. There’s  a beautiful layer of anonymity to a phone call,   or a text message, that allows for mutual consent  with communication. When it comes to video,  

all of that gets way tougher: two people need  to be totally comfortable both seeing and being   seen to make it work, and if there’s any kind  of mismatch, the whole process breaks down. Maria could’ve saved Bell Labs  at least $400 million dollars. A. Michael Noll worked for Bell Labs in  the 1960’s researching human communication  

– he was also suspicious. He said in a 1988  interview that, “Using the telephone is ‘akin   to whispering in the ear. Seeing somebody almost  destroys the intimacy of the communication. When   we ask an audience whether they want to  see on the phone, half or more say no.” There were good reasons not to  want video, and there were great   reasons to stick to audio. So… Let’s talk  about how to burn billions of dollars. Howard Blumenthal was right about  the consumer cost being prohibitive,   and Bell Labs was about to find out. Just 12%  of those surveyed at the World’s Fair said  

they’d pay between $40 and $60 a month  for video phone service. It was cool,   but they didn’t want to pay a premium for it.  And that’s if they already had the device. That same year AT&T opened Picturephone rooms  in New York, Chicago, and Washington – you   could rent one of these rooms for up  to $27 for the first three minutes,   and someone in one of the other cities would go  to their room to Picturephonevideocall with you.

A total of only 71 calls were made in 6  months – PROBABLY BECAUSE IT WAS $90 PER   MINUTE IN TODAY’S DOLLARS – and even though  the facilities stayed open until 1970,   not a single Picturephone call  was made in the final YEAR. Here’s a question: What would  YOU pay $90 a minute for? A year prior to AT&T’s zero customer  year, they predicted that Picturephones   would have 1 million users generating  a billion dollars a year by 1980 – it   was so exciting that film director Stanley  Kubrick sent a team to Bell Labs to get a   sense of what the future of communication  would look like. And that’s why Dr. Floyd   calls his daughter on a Picturephone  in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. So, the obvious solution was to roll it out to the   masses – they had to plow forward  because the future was waiting. In 1970 Picturephone opened markets in Pittsburgh,  Chicago, and Oak Brook for home video call   service. And again, it was really expensive –  $160 per month for the equipment and service,   which is about $1,322 per month adjusted for  inflation. And it was 25 cents per minute after  

the first half hour, which is $2.07 PER MINUTE  today. Which… is definitely a lot better than $90. After a full year and a half of the test rollout  in Pittsburgh, they had a total of… 8 customers. EIGHT. They even cut the price in half  and it didn’t matter. Not only   did people not want to spend all that  money for video phones – a whole lot   of people didn’t see the point  in having a video phone AT ALL. Bell Labs and the citizens of Pittsburgh  had unknowingly run afoul of the law.

Metcalfe’s Law. Computer engineer Robert Metcalfe coined the  term to explain a phenomenon where the value   of a networked device increases proportional  to the square of the number of people connected   to the system. So, videophones don’t have a  lot of value until a lot of people are using   them. And a lot of people aren’t going to use  them until… A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE USING THEM. The value of video calling wasn’t obvious,  most of its potential customers were   somewhere on a spectrum of disinterested  and hostile, it was hideously expensive,   and it wasn’t significantly better  than the cheap, existing alternative.

Video calling got switched off – if it was  ever really switched on in the first place. The prospect of seeing and being  seen as you talk pretty much went   back into science fiction – like  Captain Picard using video calls   to talk to felicium addicts, which is basically  space crack. That episode aired in April of 1988,   a month after the VisiTel cover story in  Popular Science – consumers were a little   more comfortable with home technology and  finally starting to get excited about it. Companies like Mitsubishi and Sony thought it was  time to re-energize the idea of video calling. And they were so, so close to being right -  use cases were emerging in unlikely places. The July ‘88 issue included an update from the  editor in chief about VisiTels being used to   alleviate jail overcrowding in Maryland – 7 people  under house arrest were issued VisiTel units,   and each day law enforcement could video  call them to verify that they were, indeed,   home. One offender said, “I’m not happy  about it, but it sure beats going to jail.”

And a New York Times forum titled “Videophone:  A Flop That Won’t Die” generated a response from   doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center,  who said that VisiTels could be useful as what   we’d come to know as telemedicine – and even  for families to communicate with patients who   need to be in isolation for weeks at a time.  This was 1992 – the doctors lamented that,   “The bad news is that Mitsubishi stopped making  these instruments; they were not profitable.” And about 10 minutes after THAT, all  the standalone video calling devices,   the Picturephones and the Visitels that  techno-futurists had dreamed of for more   than a century, were wiped completely  off the map by the internet and webcams. And now despite 100 years of skepticism,  every smartphone is… a video phone. Alright, it’s time to call Matt and it’s time  to go back 35 years for a black and white,   pixelated glimpse into the future.

Matt’s mom is a serious fan of old phones.  She’s probably got 20 of them – so I borrowed   this sweet one with the giant number  pad.. I like this a lot. Unlike me,   she’s got a landline, so I set  Matt up with the other VisiTel. I had to buy a Cell2Jack bluetooth adapter, so  I could pair this with my cell phone to mimic a   landline. I plugged in the adapter’s power unit,  and then I plugged the old phone into the VisiTel   and then the VisiTel goes into the Cell2Jack.  And just like that, I’ve got a fake landline. So now I just need to call Matt.

Matt: “Hello?” Kevin: Matt! You’re not gonna believe what game my   mom got me for my birthday. Check this  out. Hold on. Let me send it to you. Matt: Oh yeah, I’m comin’ over. Tell  your mom I’m watching her microwave   the bagel bites. I’m sending you my gamer face.

Kevin: Oh no. I don’t know what  went wrong but your picture looks   like Satan’s sonogram. The retrofuture  is bleak. Thanks anyway, I gotta go. Matt: Alright see ya.

The Popular Science article  ends with a quote from AT&T   spokeswoman Daisy Ottmann stating  that picture phones will be new   and exciting “...only if you believe  a picture’s worth a thousand words.” But… what if you only want the words? See you in the future.

2024-05-18 01:42

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