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A brief history of Video Conferencing

September 17th, 2020

Written by Katy Winship

Video calling has had a huge and mainly positive impact on our society as we know it. Its mere existence has allowed for advancements in many fields such as teaching, justice, business and medicine. But imagine a world without video calls. A world, where during a global pandemic, you were unable to simultaneously see the faces of your loved ones as you talked to them. It’s something that we now take for granted.

You might say, “There’s no need to make a song and dance out of it”, but that’s exactly what global superstars Beyonce and Lady Gaga did in 2008 with their single “Video Phone”.

Yes, video phones have played a huge part in popular culture in the 21 st century. A technology that bridges the gaps in distance between users. With over 40 million Skype users active every day, it’s hard to imagine an age when we couldn’t make video calls. But believe it or not, there was such a time.

Of course, the concept of video calling didn’t exist a mere century ago. The Teleconference of the US Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, which took place in 1927, is one of the first demonstrations of the “video phone”. Hoover delivered a speech from Washington that was seen AND heard in a laboratory in New York. But really, this was a combination of TV magic and telephone – he wasn’t some sort of iPhone carrying time traveller.

Fast forward a mere 37 years and you get the real deal. A monumental landmark in Video Conferencing, the AT&T presented the PicturePhone at the World Fair in New York in 1964. Unfortunately for AT&T it wasn’t exactly an instant hit. By the end of the 70’s it became clear that despite all the marketing efforts made, the PicturePhone was doomed. Probably because of the cost -$160 per month for each end point, that’s almost $1000 a month in today’s money (or £755 to us Brits) so most domestic households and businesses could not afford it.

The PicturePhone did, however, facilitate Keum Ja Kim though, a 15-year-old soloist with the World Vision Orphan Choir, to audition for Robert Merrill, a star with the Metropolitan Opera in 1965. I’m not sure how successful she was though.

Meanwhile in 1971, in the UK, a visual collaboration system was launched by the British Post Office. It was called Confravision and it connected London, Bristow, Birmingham, Glasgow, and Manchester, then later connected the UK and Sweden. It came with a scrambler for “top-secret deals” and, as this video suggests, even the simplest of secretaries can handle the link-up to enable directors to confer together.

It was a decade later when Video Conferencing became more accessible. Advancement in the technology such as Network Video Protocol (NVP) in 1976 and the Packet Video Protocol (PVP) in 1981 started bringing the technology to more than just NASA and the military. In 1982 Compression Labs introduced their system to the world, for the handsome sum of just $250,000; and in 1986 PictureTel’s VC would hit the market with its system at just $80,000.

In the mid 80’s video calling was expensive and used by the likes of Wall Street big wigs, mainly in Hilton Hotels in the US. The hotel chain built a video conferencing network linking dedicated suites in New York, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco, using GEC McMichael systems.

Attempts were made to make video calling more accessible in the late 80’s. For example, Mitsubishi created a picture phone in 1987 which had a still image (so what’s the point right?), this was quickly dropped two years later when it proved to be unsuccessful commercially.

The 1990s saw a surge in video conferencing technologies with the advent of the Internet Protocol (IP) and much more advanced video compression technologies which allowed the video image and sound to be transmitted in much smaller packets across the network, reducing the size of the live-streamed files.

In 1991, IBM introduced their innovative PC-based system for video conferencing called PicTel. It was black and white and cost considerably less than the old systems with a cost of just $30 per hour. Despite that, the initial outlay for the hardware and software was £20,000 - so not that accessible for small-to-medium businesses!

1992 was ground-breaking though with the launch of CU-SeeMe from Apple Macintosh. This video-only system provided the highest quality commercial video to date, and with the introduction of sound in 1994, there was finally a commercially viable video conferencing solution. Other companies followed their lead to try capture the growing market.

VC technology was starting to catch on in various industries with 1994 seeing The Royal College of Surgeons set out to train practitioners in Minimal Access Therapy (AKA keyhole surgery) using television and video conferencing, linking a CLi codec, television systems and a ‘teleconferencing trolley’.

Then in 1999 Kyocera released the game-changer - the VP-210 Visual Phone, the first mobile colour videophone that also doubled as a camera phone for still photos. It was the same size as other mobile phones at the time (think Nokia 2210), had a huge camera lens and was able to process two video frames per second.

The mid-late 90’s saw huge advancements in technology – factors like faster Internet speeds and developed video codecs allowed videophones to provide high quality and low-cost services to growing amounts of users.

By 2001 Video Conferencing was becoming huge and a useful tool in the Medical field. Surgeons used it to remotely conduct surgery on a gall bladder using robotic arms in Strasbourg from a location in New York City; a landmark use of the technology. But not everyone was a fan. That same year Bill Gates said he only used video conferencing "three or four times a year", because digital scheduling was difficult and "if the overhead is super high, then you might as well just have a face- to-face meeting". Each to their own I suppose.

In 2003 Skype (standing for “Sky Peer to Peer”) was launched and is still the platform of choice to this day. At first it simply permitted voice calls from PC to PC but in December 2010, Skype video calls became available to iPhone users.

In recent years the popularity of similar apps such of Teams has risen. And then this year (2020) during the Covid-19 Pandemic, popular apps such as Zoom, House Party and Google Hangouts have provided a lifeline for businesses and friendship groups alike.

Yep. There’s no doubt about it – video conferencing has changed the world and the way we’re now able to do business and work remotely. Thank you technology!

Make sure you have the latest webcams and headsets to make your video-conferencing experience as clear as possible! Speak to one of our knowledgeable Technology Sales Advisors today for up-to- date product knowledge!