The very first video call took place fifty years ago, which involved using the Picturephone Mod II device. (Image Credit: Chris Harrison/Carnegie Mellon University)


Fifty years ago, the first-ever video call took place using AT&T’s Picturephone Mod II between Peter Flaherty, then-Pittsburgh Mayor, and John Harper, former chairman of Alcoa. This was the first video phone that could be installed in your home or office, and when AT&T’s network went live on July 1, 1970, 38 of these devices were being used across eight Pittsburgh companies.


AT&T was able to develop the Picturephone Mod II for home and office use due to the emergence of smaller cameras and advancements in signal compression, switchboards and circuitry. It featured a 5 x 5”, 250-resolution black and white screen with a refresh rate of 30 interlaced frames per second. Meanwhile, the camera’s resolution was equal to 0.8 megapixels. The Picturephone Mod II needed three phone lines, which meant that one of the phone lines transmitted voice since video requires higher bandwidth than audio.


AT&T’s Picturephone Mod II also contained an integrated mirror, which could be used as an early type of screen sharing by flipping it to either display documents or the user behind the Mod II. Prices to use it were also pretty steep, costing $160/month, which is equivalent to $1,092 today, and you would only get 30 minutes' worth of call time.


However, the Picturephone wasn’t a big hit on the market as AT&T anticipated. By 1973, approximately 450 of these devices were in use, and the company projected that by 1975, 100,000 Mod IIs would be active on its network.


With very little success, AT&T, which put $500 million into videophone research and development from the ’50s to the early ’70s, attempted to create different versions of the Picturephone Mod II until the ’90s. It turned out to be a failure due to high costs, low demand and people’s unwillingness to be seen over the phone.


Today’s technology, which consists of cameras in smartphones, tablets and laptops, makes it much more affordable and easier to have video calls for billions of people around the world. The Mod II device wasn’t the game-changer AT&T hoped for, but it helped make a significant impact on video calling technology.


In the future, video calling could have more immersive technologies to connect and collaborate with remote teams. This includes using advanced VR and AR technologies in the workplace, making it seem like employees are in the same virtual room during a conference call. 5G’s emergence also means that AR and VR technology will make an appearance in the industry. Some companies, like ARcall, have already developed a new form of communication that uses holograms in augmented reality via a smartphone or AR glasses. Another company, Spatial, has created a holographic collaboration platform, which turns virtual meetings into a more interactive VR 3D experience.



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