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PicturePhone: How Bell Telephone lost a half billion, but nearly created the internet


Justin

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PicturePhone: How Bell Telephone lost a half billion, but nearly created the internet

 

 

This is a 4 minute dissertation on Bell Telephone (AT&T) spending nearly half a billion dollars developing the PicturePhone, and how that development intertwines with the internet. This video is made by one of my favorite people on YouTube, Bill Hammack the Engineer Guy. You may have seen my recent post with his video on how Sony's Beta lost to JVC's VHS format. His videos are great, I hope you enjoy this little tidbit of history!

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The Bell PicturePhone was heavily touted at the 1964 New York World's Fair to be the phone of the future. Multiple so-called "Family Phone Booths" were installed on the fairgrounds, allowing ordinary fairgoers to call people halfway around the world through the magic of the PicturePhone. That must have been quite amazing to experience in 1964.

"I'd buy that for a dollar!" -Smash T.V.

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The Bell PicturePhone was heavily touted at the 1964 New York World's Fair to be the phone of the future. Multiple so-called "Family Phone Booths" were installed on the fairgrounds, allowing ordinary fairgoers to call people halfway around the world through the magic of the PicturePhone. That must have been quite amazing to experience in 1964.

 

That's a very nice thought Lee. The 1964 World's Fair, and early EPCOT after it, were inspiring models of the ideal world in which we worked toward building. I posted the video on PicturePhone because it dovetails nicely with No Swear Gamer's post on "Is VR Doomed To Fail?". There are ideas and products, like PicturePhone, that feel truly magical when we first experience them, yet the "details" aren't yet there. They struggle to fit a practical purpose and fail to gain traction with the public. 

 

As Bill Hammock said, "So in a way, the PicturePhone fit in nowhere. Too expensive for home, too limited for business, but it does remind us when looking at failure to look carefully at the details, because in them is often the path to the future."

 

You could say Atari at their apex hit that magical sweetspot. Price, play value and innovation all worked in their favor.

 

It's also worth noting that a "future" version of the Bell PicturePhone was presented in the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The little girl on the phone is Stanley Kubrick's daughter. 

 

 

 

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This also might be a nice time to post the AtariTel presentation with Alan Alda. AtariTel had developed videophones called "LumaPhone" which eventually reached the market as a Mitsubishi product. I own a few of them, they are interesting but leave much to be desired.

 

 

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzGsPGaxXYo

AtariTel Smart Telephones

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I kinda wish Picture Phones had taken off. A fascinating concept. I guess Skype is like the modern equivalent, without being a dedicated device one has sitting on their desk or mounted in their living room wall. In a sense, I suppose, PicturePhone is therefore anywhere one can possibly imagine.

"I'd buy that for a dollar!" -Smash T.V.

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It feeds into that deep psychological desire, to put a face to that disembodied, sometimes nameless voice coming out of one's speaker. Scientists have proven time and again that humans bond more readily when they can see each other's faces. A faceless voice on a phone feels cold, impersonal. Deep down in their psyche, people *need* that connection. It is no wonder, then, that video phones were always the grand ideal for the ultimate future of telecommunication.

 

 

... This post got really deep, LOL.

"I'd buy that for a dollar!" -Smash T.V.

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Also, EDIT. My facts were in error. PicturePhones were not used in the Family Phone Booths at the 1964 World's Fair. PicturePhones were indeed displayed at the Bell Pavillion, though, and fairgoers could indeed call people on the other side of the continent.

"I'd buy that for a dollar!" -Smash T.V.

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Slightly OT but I miss having dedicated devices that do the one and only job and doing said job well... but maybe part of that stems from watching sci-fi movies when I was younger and expecting just that. I did my first video conference on a big screen just a few months ago and it was nice. Definitely a dedicated for video only device in a meeting room. Anyways, I'm veering off...

2600 - 7800 - 800XL - 130XE - Lynx - Jaguar

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Very ironic the timing of your original posting of this, Justin.

 

Around when you did, I had just picked up my copy of Atari Inc: Business is Fun, after it had been collecting dust when i first started it. And what was I reading about? How Atari was trying to getting in to Telecommunications including a picture/video phone.

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The No Swear Gamer on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChtJuo040EOCTVziObIgVcg

Host of The Atari 7800 Game by Game Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and YouTube

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