The Picturephone: 50 years old and still unpopular

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On April 20th, 1964, at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Park, Bell Telephone exhibited the Mod 1 Picturephone, a predecessor to modern video calling applications Skype and FaceTime.

At the exhibit, visitors were able to experience a face-to-face video conversation with a person thousands of miles away. The tiny display video offered a jaw-dropping 30 frames per second (FPS), black-and-white feed. At the time, fair attendees were impressed by their first glimpse into the future of webcam telephony. Unfortunately, AT&T’s $5.3 per minute video calling service was far too expensive for the average consumer, making the Mod 1 Picturephone an instant flop.

Today, the market narrative for such devices remains similarly bleak. Although face-to-face video conferencing has long captivated the imagination of sci fi writers all over the world, such devices have yet to gain popularity as a desired form of communication, even though such features are today inexpensive, fit in the palm of your hands, and built into nearly every computer.

The late David Foster Wallace, in his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, provides several hilarious opinions regarding the superiority of voice-only telephony and the faults of the videophone.

The following is an excerpt from Wallace’s Infinite Jest (published by Back Bay Books) on the differences between video and voice-only telephony

(1) It turned out that there was something terribly stressful about visual telephone interfaces that hadn’t been stressful at all about voice-only interfaces. Videophone consumers seemed suddenly to realize that they’d been subject to an insidious but wholly marvelous delusion about conventional voice-only telephony. They’d never noticed it before, the delusion–it’s like it was so emotionally complex that it could be countenanced only in the context of its loss. Good old traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything even close to complete attention to her. A traditional aural-only conversation–utilizing a hand-held phone whose earpiece contained only 6 little pinholes but whose mouthpiece (rather significantly, it later seemed) contained (62) or 36 little pinholes–let you enter a kind of highway-hypnotic semi-attentive fugue: while conversing, you could look around the room, doodle, fine-groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles, compose phone-pad haiku, stir things on the stove; you could even carry on a whole separate additional sign-language-and-exaggerated-facial-expression type of conversation with people right there in the room with you, all while seeming to be right there attending closely to the voice on the phone. And yet–and this was the retrospectively marvelous part–even as you were dividing your attention between the phone call and all sorts of other idle little fuguelike activities, you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that they person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided. During a traditional call, e.g., as you let’s say performed a close tactile blemish-scan of your chin, you were in no way oppressed by the thought that your phonemate was perhaps also devoting a good percentage of her attention to a close tactile blemish-scan. It was an illusion and the illusion was aural and aurally supported: the phone-line’s other end’s voice was dense, tightly compressed, and vectored right into your ear, enabling you to imagine that the voice’s owner’s attention was similarly compressed and focused … even though your own attention was not, was the thing. This bilateral illusion of unilateral attention was almost infantilely gratifying from an emotional standpoint: you got to believe you were receiving somebody’s complete attention without having to return it. Regarded with the objectivity of hindsight, the illusion appears arational, almost literally fantastic: it would be like being able both to lie and to trust other people at the same time.

Video telephony rendered the fantasy insupportable. Callers now found they had to compose the same sort of earnest, slightly overintense listener’s expression they had to compose for in-person exchanges. Those callers who out of unconscious habit succumbed to fuguelike doodling or pants-crease-adjustment now came off looking rude, absentminded, or childishly self-absorbed. Callers who even more unconsciously blemish-scanned or nostril-explored looked up to find horrified expressions on the video-faces at the other end. All of which resulted in videophonic stress.

Even worse, of course, was the traumatic expulsion-from-Eden feeling of looking up from tracing your thumb’s outline on the Reminder Pad or adjusting the old Unit’s angle of repose in your shorts and actually seeing your videophonic interfacee idly strip a shoelace of its gumlet as she talked to you, and suddenly realizing your whole infantile fantasy of commanding your partner’s attention while you yourself got to fugue-doodle and make little genital-adjustments was deluded and insupportable and that you were actually commanding not one bit more attention than you were paying, here. The whole attention business was monstrously stressful, video callers found.

About Author

Poet, web designer, and tech writer, Brad Bailey is co-founder of Tech Gen Mag. Having once been a regular in the Orange County poetry circuit, Brad set his notebooks aside to assist childhood friend, Kristian Markus, with the task of building a web-based tech magazine. Born into the Nintendo generation, Brad is a longtime fan of video games, gadgets, and computers.

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