Not long ago, we passed along the story of the first videophone service
, which was launched in 1936 in Germany only to be shut down a few years later. Today, we're sharing another bit of telecommunications history – how Bell (now AT&T) launched its video telephone service and along with it a revolutionary (for the time) device called the PicturePhone. This happened in the distant 1964 – exactly 50 years ago.
The PicturePhone was, basically, a device combining a camera, a screen, a speaker, and a microphone. It was used together with a standard, 12-button telephone to allow video calls to be made over the existing landline network. The display measured 5.5 by 5 inches and displayed black-and-white video at 30 frames per second and resolution of about 250 or 280 horizontal lines. Simply put, the PicturePhone was like something out of a sci-fi movie!
The office of the future, as imagined in 1964. Bell was aiming for 12 million VideoPhone subscribers by 2000
But the PicturePhone didn't take the country by storm. In fact, very few people ever used the device, let alone subscribe to Bell's videophone service. The reasons? Well, price was one of them. The company charged a ridiculous amount of money – $160 per month, or about a thousand in today's money – for PicturePhone service. In hopes of generating hype and consumer interest in the device, Bell installed calling booths in major U.S. cities – New York, Chicago, and Washington D.C. – where one could have a 3-minute video call for a price of between $18 and $27 (the equivalent of $120 to $200 today). This, however, didn't help much as only about 70 people gave the PicturePhone a try over the first six months. By 1968, the PicturePhone booths were removed due to the absolute lack of customers.
Bell was hoping to have 100,000 PicturePhone units in use on its network by 1975, but in reality, only a fraction of this estimate was reached by that time. The subscriber base consisted of 500 or so subscribers at its peak, most of which resided in Chicago. Needless to say, Bell didn't make much money out of its creation. In fact, it lost half a billion dollars, having invested tremendous amounts of time and resources in the device. PicturePhone service was discontinued in the late '70s.