History of Video Conferencing

The history of video conferencing started as early as 1964 when visitors to the World’s Fair in New York were witness to a new contraption called the Picturephone.

The idea of joining voice and video was first demonstrated in 1956 by AT&T, the telephone company founded by Alexander Graham Bell himself. Now instead of just hearing a distant voice at the other end of the telephone line, a caller would be able to see the person as well.

The whole concept of video conferencing was emerging whereby whole groups of people could communicate across time and space, from the boardroom to the hospital, exchanging ideas, information and visual presentations from anywhere to anywhere and at anytime.

Fast forward to 1970 when the commercial Picturephone service debuted in Pittsburgh and AT&T executives confidently predicted that a million Picturephone sets would be in use by 1980.

However, with prices starting at more than $160.00 per month, this new form of communication was well out of reach to most consumers. Besides the cost, the equipment was difficult to use, bulky and operated very slowly. The picture was so small that the image could barely be recognised let alone seen properly.

Outside of AT&T, other companies were also working on bringing equipment to market which resulted in the 1982 product release of the first video conferencing system by Compression Labs. To say the system was large would be an understatement - it was huge and used enormous resources capable of tripping 15 amp circuit breakers. The price tag for this video conferencing system was $250,000 with a connection cost of $1,000 per hour. However, to it's advantage it was the only working video conferencing system available until PictureTel, a company headquartered in Andover, Massachusetts, hit the market in 1986 with their substantially cheaper $80,000 system with $100 per hour lines.

In 1991 PictureTel aligned themselves with IBM to introduce a more costs effective black and white video conferencing system but the price was still well beyond the average user. This first PC based system held a $20,000 price tag with a line charge of $30.00 per hour but a new chapter in video conferencing had begun.

Unfortunately, at this stage, a conference room equipped with video conferencing equipment was required and not only did the participants of the video conference have to relocate to the same location, the cost of renting the video conferencing room itself was, to say the least, expensive.

The following year AT&T again introduced their new Videophone for the home market which now had a price tag of $1,500. However, the general public were, in general, still excluded from the new service.

The same time saw Macintosh enter the market with a video conference system called CU-SeeMe v0.1 for the personal computer. The first version did not have audio capability but it was the best video system developed at that point in time.

By 1993, the Macintosh program had developed into multipoint system and in the following year, CU-SeeMe was a true video conferencing system with audio. As good as this system was, it was limited only to a Mac so developers worked day and night to create a CU-SeeMe that was compatible with Windows, the most popular home based operating system.

This was accomplished with the April 1994 release of CU-SeeME for Windows but, as with the first Macintosh version, it had no audio. Finally, in August 1995, CU-SeeMe v0.66b1 for Windows was released and now the speaker or speakers could not only see the person they were talking to, they could do this from the safety and convenience of their own office or home.

The boom had begun and more high tech companies joined in the creation of video conferencing software and equipment. By 1996, Microsoft NetMeeting v20.0b2 was released and video conferencing became available to almost anyone with a home computer.

Another system to emerge at the same time was VocalTec Surf & Call, the first web to phone plug in. Surf & Call allowed visitors of a website to conduct business, one on one, from anywhere around the globe. It was as if a virtual sales assistant was stood in the room with the buyer while families could log on to a family website and share more than just pictures in real time.

Finally, by 2000 Samsung released the first MPEG-4 streaming 3G video cell phone. Streaming means media that is read, heard and viewed while it is being delivered.

Today the price of video conferencing depends on the need. The average person can now video conference the whole world over for as little as $12.00 a month and the price of a phone while industry giants like Yahoo and MSN have made the service free.

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