Time for the full picture

Increased bandwidth and the falling costs of mobile network connections mean the videophone might at long last become a genuine success, says Bill Pechey

AT&T announced the first videophone in 1956; it was called the Picturephone and was relaunched several times, even into the 1970s. It was a complete flop every time. Since then, there have been many attempts to make successful videophones for the mass market; carriers such as BT have tried a few times but none caught on.

So why don't people want to buy videophones? The idea of being able to see the person at the other end of the phone line should be very appealing. People always say that they don't want others to see them in bed or with rollers in or in the nude or whatever. This is a strange argument since every videophone has a way of preventing video transmission. Some say that either the hardware or network technology, or both, are not good enough, and there is some truth in that. Many people have used video conferencing systems over LAN or WAN links at the office and don't like them for various reasons, mainly because of their failure to simulate a true face-to-face meeting.

Things do seem to be changing, however. Firstly, Motion Media is making a high-performance videophone, the MM225, that can work over ISDN or PSTN lines and is not much larger than a desktop phone. Secondly, Orange has just launched a truly mobile videophone using its 28.8kbit/s HSCSD data service. Both of these devices have small colour screens, an important factor because the use of a small screen is one of the best ways of reducing the bit rate needed, meaning smaller devices actually perform better.

Both videophones use advanced video and audio coding techniques to get the best from the low bit rates available. The performance is really not too bad and, in my view, certainly usable.

Advances in technology are also improving the performance of videophones further; coding algorithms are getting better all the time but, inevitably, each performance advance needs a corresponding leap in processing power. Luckily, Moore's Law solves that one as far as the host devices are concerned. Meanwhile, data rates are continually going up and prices coming down on fixed and mobile network connections.

Orange has been quite smart in that its videophone is really a Pocket PC device with the video bits added. At £1,299 it's not that much more expensive than any other top-end Pocket PC, but it also includes a mobile phone and a videophone. I believe that the idea of mobility will change the way people regard videophones. It will be interesting to see how successful it is. Orange certainly wants it to be a success and will be setting up a range of video services which should help solve the usual problem of having no one to talk to.

If the Orange videophone takes off it will stimulate the demand for other types of device, such as the MM225 and Internet video. Companies will find that they can make video conferencing more attractive and productive if employees can join in from home or on the move via mobile networks.

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