VIDEOPHONE Just around the corner

January 20, 1992|By Mike Langberg | Mike Langberg,Knight-Ridder News Service

William J. McKenna, executive vice president of the Hat Corporation of America, and two of his associates made a sales call on two of their customers in Washington the other day.

There was just one catch, however -- the hat salesmen did all their selling from New York.

The sales approach involved the use of the Picturephone, a new device that permits both parties to see each other as they speak on the telephone. . . . While this might sound like something out of "1984," it is far from that.

-- New York Times, Jan. 3, 1965

The New York Times had it exactly right, although for the wrong reasons. The Picturephone wasn't the wave of the future. In fact, the Picturephone died even before the market for men's hats.

American Telephone & Telegraph, inventor of the Picturephone, gave up on its futuristic device not long after its gala introduction at the 1964 World's Fair. The system was difficult to install and far too expensive at $9 a minute -- in 1964 dollars.

But AT&T is trying again with the $1,500 Videophone 2500.

Only well-heeled gadget freaks are likely to buy a Videophone 2500, although AT&T will try to reach a broader market by offering rental units for less than $30 a day.

This time, according to experts, personal, two-way video communications is here to stay. Really.

But they admit that it will probably take another three to five years before videophones being developed by numerous companies are widely available and inexpensive enough to join color televisions, microwave ovens and videocassette recorders as standard equipment in the typical home.

And the quality may disappoint science-fiction fans who've seen countless worlds of the future with crystal-clear, two-way view screens.

The first videophones operate at only two to 10 frames a second, compared with 30 frames a second for television and 24 frames a second for movies. That means images are jerky and voices aren't always synchronized with lip movements.

But it's better than nothing and is likely to cost less than $500 by 1995.

The dawn of two-way video is the result of several technological breakthroughs.

Mathematicians and engineers have devised increasingly sophisticated methods to compress video signals for transmission by telephone. An uncompressed television signal would occupy 5,000 conventional phone lines. By carefully selecting only those parts of the picture that change with each new frame, it is possible to send a close approximation of full-motion video over a single copper phone line.

At the same time, semiconductor companies such as Intel Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., and LSI Logic Corp. of Milpitas, Calif., are designing sophisticated microprocessors that perform the complicated calculations for video compression in billionths of a second.

Because of these innovations, Silicon Valley visionary Nolan Bushnell, inventor of the original Pong video game and Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theater, has proclaimed 1992 to be "the year of the videophone."

"It's going to be wild and woolly out there," Mr. Bushnell said last week, with numerous manufacturers fighting each other for control of the market.

Mr. Bushnell is putting himself in the center of the action, backing a San Diego company called Octus that is developing video networks for offices.

More than 25 electronics manufacturers around the world are preparing to join AT&T in the videophone market, according to Elliott Gold of the research firm Telespan in Altadena, Calif.

Comtech Labs Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., for example, will announce a videophone later this month that the company claims will have a slightly larger screen and better picture quality than AT&T's Videophone 2500.

In addition to videophones for the home, a new generation of "desktop video" systems for personal-computer networks are poised to enter the market.

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