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History of Video Conferencing

History of Video Conferencing

Video conferencing has made it possible for a person sitting in Sacramento, California, to interact with the other person sitting in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, irrespective of being 2372 miles away from him. Join us as we trace the five-decade long journey of this technology.
Abhijit Naik
Video conferencing is a telecommunication technology which allows two or more people to interact with each other by a two-way audio video transmission. A popular mode of interaction, it is used in various aspects of life, including health, business, education, administration, legal environment, and so on.

From a medium of instruction in distance education to a medium to give testimony in court proceedings, it has become a prominent mode of communication all over the world. The fact that it allows individuals or groups who are separated by any distance to interact easily, thus sparing the expenses which both sides would have incurred had they met in person, is considered the biggest advantage of this technology.

Video Conferencing Timeline

The history of video conferencing can be traced back to 1964, when a gadget known as the Picturephone was introduced at the World's Fair in New York. Earlier, in 1956, AT&T demonstrated the concept of bringing together voice (audio) and picture (video). The technology made it feasible for the caller to see the person whom he called while being in conversation. In 1970, AT&T introduced its commercial Picturephone service in Pittsburgh, and confidently proclaimed that they would reach out to a customer base of a million within a decade. Picturephone's high operating costs, more than $160.00 per month, turned out to be its biggest drawback. The bulky device was also very slow and difficult to operate. Even the picture screen was very small and barely clear. Owing to all these drawbacks, the Picturephone wasn't able to live up to its expectations.

In 1982, Compression Labs launched their first video conferencing system. With a price tag of $250,000, the huge machine required enormous resources. The connection cost was also whopping $1,000 per hour. Though costly, it had an advantage of being the only system in the market till 1986. In 1986, a Massachusetts based firm, PictureTel launched a comparatively cheaper system priced at $80,000. At $100 per hour, its connection cost was 10 times cheaper than that of its competitor. In 1991, PictureTel, in collaboration with IBM, introduced a cost-efficient black and white video conferencing system. The first PC-based conferencing system, it was priced at $20,000, while the connection charges were $30.00 per hour. All this while, the practice required a conference room well equipped with all the equipment. Relocating to this room and renting the same involved a high expenditure, and that made the technology quite expensive.

The year 1992 marked the launch of AT&T Videophone, priced at $1,500, which was targeted for the home market. But a large section of the society was still unable to afford the new gadget. During the same time, Macintosh launched its own video conferencing system meant for the PC, called CU-SeeMe v0.1. It had one of the best video quality of that time, an advantage which was overshadowed by its major drawback, lack of audio capability. After Macintosh developed into a multi-point system in 1993, CU-SeeMe was upgraded to a full-fledged conferencing system with quality audio backing. Though a remarkable piece of technology, it was only compatible to the Mac systems. In 1994, it was upgraded and made compatible to Windows, which was then the most popular operating system. But again like its first version, it lacked audio feature, which eventually came with the CU-SeeMe v0.66b1 in 1995.

Due to the major boom in the demand for video conferencing systems, many high-tech companies joined the race to provide better systems at cheaper rates. In 1996, with the launch of Microsoft NetMeeting v20.0b2, this practice became a home affair. The year also marked the introduction of the first web to phone plugin, VocalTec Surf & Call. It became very popular in the business circuit owing to its ability to provide website visitors the facility of conducting business from any part of the world.

Nowadays, conference calls are a very common and important aspect of almost all businesses and organizations. Today, videoconferencing costs have come down to as low as $12.00 a month, wherein a user can use this facility to interact with anyone, anywhere in this world. Some messenger services have even made conferencing on the web free. Information transfer has become faster and cheaper due to this technology, which allows two individuals to interact with each other, in spite of being in two different parts of the world. It has definitely made the world a smaller place.