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The History of the Videophone In Sci-Fi 97

Posted by samzenpus
from the I-want-my-flying-car dept.
bejiitas_wrath writes "Ars Technica has an interesting story about the history of the videophone in Science Fiction. Star Trek has always depicted the video calling when hailing ships and planets, but even the 1935 movie The Tunnel depicted video calling from one continent to another and even video calling from airplanes! And huge public video screens showing the news and current events. Now we can use Skype to call one another over the Internet and video call with mobile `phones, but the video quality is nowhere near the quality shown in the film 2001 or the aforementioned Transatlantic Tunnel film."
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The History of the Videophone In Sci-Fi

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  • The real issue: (Score:4, Insightful)

    by sean.peters (568334) on Thursday June 23, 2011 @12:16PM (#36542762) Homepage

    Mostly, people just aren't that keen on video calling. It's honestly kind of a pain: you have to keep looking at the screen, avoid scratching your face, or doing anything else while you're talking. With a plain old audio call, you can lay around on the bed in your underwear while simultaneously reading slashdot during the boring parts of the conversation. We've had the technology to do video calling for quite a while - people just aren't that into it.

    • by vawwyakr (1992390)
      Yeah I have almost no interest in this tech at all. We have workers spread around different offices/locations and my manager is always suggesting we setup our video conferencing equipment, but I have no idea why. I'm not communicating anything useful with my face while we're chatting on the phone about tech topics. It's utterly useless, maybe for some couple who are living separately for some work or something I could see it being better than sexting but otherwise why the hell would I want to see someone
      • by hitmark (640295)

        Perhaps it is so that he can call at random intervals and see that your actually working, rather then having to take the walk and have some peon send a "warning, PHB on the loose!" across the company network?

    • by grub (11606)

      We have a regular IT Managers' teleconference which we call in to with the option to go video. Even with a nice Cisco (nee Tandberg) VC system and 60" display, I go over the phone.

      That way I can eat my lunch, play on my phone, scratch myself, etc. Video calls make me way too self conscious about what I'm doing and concentration is lost.
    • But plain old telephone technology is ancient. Why not replace it with modern technology that uses the internet to deliver its data instead ? You could have a system that's built from the ground up to support video, encryption, etc. but can fallback to plain old voice-only if you want to (or shows an avatar or something.) Just the ability to send data over the same secure connection should be enough of an advantage to do this: no more dictating names or phone numbers, just send the data; no more stupid secu

      • by sean.peters (568334) on Thursday June 23, 2011 @12:44PM (#36543214) Homepage

        The technology isn't the issue. We can do video calling right now, and have been able to do so for some time. The thing is that people don't WANT video calling.

        But plain old telephone technology is ancient.

        Lots of technology is ancient. I walked up the stairs to my office today, even though the building has an elevator. People still write with pencil and paper. Electricity is still transmitted with 60 Hz A/C technology that Tesla would recognize. The point is that technology upgrades aren't an end in themselves - they need to meet some need people have. And people don't apparently need to do video calling.

        • Yes, what I'm saying is we should replace the old telephone system with something a little more future oriented that can do all the exiting new stuff while also allowing voice-only communication. Instead of doing what we have now and having all this stuff live next to each other and require different clients, different numbers or addresses, etc. I'm talking about changing the technology, not the use case.

          • by hitmark (640295)

            Sadly the client issue will be hard to resolve, unless some force is applied on Skype to open up their protocol to third parties for free (in both senses).

            On the addressing however, i seem to recall a DNS FTC that involved using DNS to hide multiple addresses under a single name. So to dial up someone you would enter the "url" and the kind of service you wanted to use, and the DNS lookup would give the relevant data in response.

      • by Patch86 (1465427)

        Are you not just describing Skype (and its competitors), who have been around for a decade or more now? Hell, in my office all the desk phones are VOIP Cisco handsets now- just because it's easier to manage the infrastructure. I'm fairly sure Skype (etc.) do video calling too.

        And yet no-one uses the video calling. As the GP points out- what's the point? Unless I have something very specific to show someone which can't be dealt with through audio + email attachments, I can't imagine why I'd want them to see

        • Something like Skype or Facetime is clearly the future. If you don't want to show video you don't have to but like I said there's other advantages. Like potentially being more secure, or not having your "number" being tied to one outlet like Facetime which rings all your devices and then connects the one where you pick up. Like I said earlier why should I have to go through a whole song and dance when making a phone call to prove who I am for example, I should just be able to sign the connection with a priv

        • by Culture20 (968837)
          Video conferencing is useful for meetings or joint calls because it allows you to know who's talking without them having to announce themselves over the phone every time. Otherwise, like you said, there's no point.
      • by S.O.B. (136083)

        I think you missed the point. It's voice vs video not how that voice or video is delivered. It doesn't matter if it's POTS, Skype, VOIP or a herd of mutant cats. The point is even though video calling is available people still seem to prefer voice.

        • I get it, most of the time I prefer voice except when I'm working overtime or something then it's nice to call home and see the kids. But why keep something around that's voice only when it's an unnecessary restriction these days and video does have its legitimate uses ?

          • I'm pretty sure that this has already happened/is happening.

            It's called the internet, wifi, and the 3g/4g cellular network. they can handle all the classic stuff, as well as all the new stuff.

            old copper POTS lines are seeing less and less use as the years go by. they are still there, but not used too much. I don't have a single thing anymore that plugs into the old infrastructure.

        • Out of idle curiosity, what's the RFC for IP via Mutant Cat Carriers?

          Or is it simply an adaptation of RFC 1149?

          • Out of idle curiosity, what's the RFC for IP via Mutant Cat Carriers?

            Or is it simply an adaptation of RFC 1149?

            Serious question: How does one tell what the most relevant RFC for anything is? Maybe RFC 1149 has been superseded. How do you know? How do you find out?

        • I think you missed the point. It's voice vs video not how that voice or video is delivered. It doesn't matter if it's POTS, Skype, VOIP or a herd of mutant cats. The point is even though video calling is available people still seem to prefer voice.

          The mutant cat layer is very difficult to manage, unless you are using the EDS protocol.

      • That's basically what telephone is now. The final bit of copper to the phone is analog, but that's it. Everything else runs digital - sometimes even IP, though more often just cutting the call into cells and putting it on ATM or SONET, as they can provide an absolute assurance of delivery and jitter.
      • by rtb61 (674572)

        That is of course the real issue POTS can run on 64kbps and video call likes at least 1500kbps. Now couple with the self serving greed of incumbent telecoms and of course they want to charge at least 20 times as much for a video call versus a voice call, how of course that just doesn't fly.

        So it is all about squeezing out the maximum profit possible out of the bandwidth available even if 9/10s of the bandwidth goes dark. Greed is the master and squeezing out 20 odd voice calls in the same bandwidth as a

    • by rwa2 (4391) *

      Having worked for some large companies that invested in some pretty slick video teleconferencing / telepresence setups, I'd include that while it is pretty slick, doing it "right" requires a fair amount of effort and additional staffing, especially when going to larger multi-party conferences.

      First off, many people failed to do enough testing, so they'd waste the first few minutes of a meeting fiddling with their various mute controls (on the mic, on the mixer, and finally in the VTC hardware itself). Or e

    • People might not be in real life, but getting their face on screen is important to TV and Film actors. If displaced characters can have a conversation which is functionally equivalent to both actors in the same shot, then that will be preferred over one character being seen and the other only heard. So, I imagine the academy won't be consigning this particular trope to history just yet.

    • by iamhassi (659463)
      "We've had the technology to do video calling for quite a while - people just aren't that into it."

      Wrong: we want video phones but we don't want to pay a lot for it, especially since it requires both parties to spend $$$. People do want to see each other, webcams seem to have done quite well since they're less than $100 but few wanted to spend the several hundreds of dollars that video calling had cost until just recently.

      In response to the synopsis: "we can use Skype to call one another over the
  • by WrongSizeGlass (838941) on Thursday June 23, 2011 @12:16PM (#36542770)

    Now we can use Skype to call one another over the Internet and video call with mobile `phones, but the video quality is nowhere near the quality shown in the film 2001 or the aforementioned Transatlantic Tunnel film.

    Today's headline: Technology Yet To Surpass Imagination!

    Here's some insight into this situation: someone has to imagine it before someone implements it.

    • "Now we can use Skype to call one another over the Internet and video call with mobile `phones, but the video quality is nowhere near the quality shown in the film 2001 or the aforementioned Transatlantic Tunnel film."

      That's because the creators of those pieces of entertainment did not visualize things like data caps. They expected it -- and justifiably so -- to be more like a phone line... not having to pay a premium for higher fidelity.

      • by Shotgun (30919)

        You do realize that the phone was limited to about 3kHz of bandwidth since like forever, right? That was how AT&T was able to derive the 64kB/s for a POTS line. You dont' pay a premium for a higher fidelity phone line, because such a thing doesn't exist.

        • You missed the point. 3khz or so was perfectly adequate for what it was being used for. At least sometimes, my so-called "20Mbps" broadband is not.
      • agreed. it's not technology, it's bandwidth.

        Take a modern GPU and ask it to encode 720p 60fps h.264 video in real time, it has no problem with that.
        Your computer finds it a trivial task to route that info from memory through the southbridge to your network card.
        your 100mbps NIC has no problem pushing that out to the router (and gigabit laughs at it).
        your router hands it to the cable/dsl modem (or your cell phone hands it to the cell tower) at which point we hit a tremendous bottleneck.

        and of course the weir

        • by tlhIngan (30335)

          and of course the weird thing is, a lot of the same people who wave their hands at you and say "oh god there's no way you can send that much data across our network!" are perfectly happy sending... that much data to you in the form of HD cable or uverse/fios tv.

          That's because the networks are optimized to send from the head end to the user, and not from the user to the headend.

          So one-way videocalling? Fine. Provided it's from the head end to you, and not the other way around.

          Even with DOCSIS 3, the bottlene

        • Broadcast traffic is low bandwidth. 100mbps broadcast/multicast to 10,000 clients is 100mbps of traffic. 100mbps unicast to 10,000 clients is 1,000,000mbps (1terabit per second if my math is correct). The number of cable or phone companies that can handle that speed you can probably count on your fingers.
      • Either that or they just didn't care. Video phones are used in movies/TV shows because it allows both actors to be onscreen in situations where that wouldn't be possible using regular phones. It has nothing to do with the feasibility of the technology.

        • Agreed. Videophones in TV/movies are about creating better entertainment than predicting an actual need.

        • I got a real laugh out of the Airplane! sequel, in which you think you're seeing William Shatner on a screen, then he opens the door...
  • TFA has nothing to do with the history of the videophone in sci-fi.
  • I like to multi-task while on the phone (w/ my bluetooth headset). I can't do that easily with a video phone.

    i.e. TALK xbox, do the dishes, watch tv, drive my car, go to the bathroom, eat, etc.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I like to multi-task while on the phone (w/ my bluetooth headset). I can't do that easily with a video phone.

      i.e. TALK xbox, do the dishes, watch tv, drive my car, go to the bathroom, eat, etc.

      Oh great, you're one of those assholes.

      • by jdgeorge (18767)

        I'm afraid "those ********" are a significant percentage of the population. Curiously, talking on the phone while driving produces a similar quality of driving to intoxication. The difference is that driving while intoxicated mostly occurs in the late evening, but driving while on the phone happens all darn day.

      • by sconeu (64226)

        i.e. TALK xbox, do the dishes, watch tv, drive my car, go to the bathroom , eat, etc.

        Oh great, you're one of those assholes.

        There. Fixed that for ya.

    • by nedlohs (1335013)

      You can't do it with your current phone either. You just think you can and don't notice that you missed half the conversation and can't remember any of the important details.

    • 1966, Germany (and Hungary as well): Raumpatrouille. Some of you might be old enough to remember it as Space Patrol. The default planetside communication was by videophone, with an option to disable video (used only once, when the political officer (female) at the other end of the line was getting ready for a shower).

      Apart from the aforementioned Metropolis, this is probably the earliest mention of real-time video communication.

  • by raving griff (1157645) on Thursday June 23, 2011 @12:33PM (#36543040)
    TFA is about the history of the video phone in real life.
  • For breaking up Ma Bell. That's why they couldn't bring high quality video calling to the moon. Of course they still couldn't have gotten there because PanAm folded. Not to mention the Soviet Union. Clarke was really bad at predicting the future ;-)
  • I wonder if Tezuka ever saw the film "the Tunnel". Could have given him the idea for "Marine Express"

  • by Culture20 (968837) on Thursday June 23, 2011 @01:01PM (#36543488)

    She touched the isolation knob, so that no one else could speak to her. Then she touched the lighting apparatus, and the little room was plunged into darkness.

    "Be quick!" She called, her irritation returning. "Be quick, Kuno; here I am in the dark wasting my time."

    But it was fully fifteen seconds before the round plate that she held in her hands began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her.

    "Kuno, how slow you are."

    He smiled gravely.

    "I really believe you enjoy dawdling."

    "I have called you before, mother, but you were always busy or isolated. I have something particular to say."

    Primitive, but a video-phone. Envisioned in or prior too 1907

    • Cartoonist George du Maurier [] beat that by about three decades in Punch magazine. The caption:

      (Every evening, before going to bed, Pater- and Materfamilias set up an electric camera-obscura over their bedroom mantel-piece, and gladden their eyes with the sight of their children at the Antipodes, and converse gaily with them through the wire.)
      Paterfamilias (in Wilton Place). 'Beatrice, come closer, I want to whisper.'
      Beatrice (from Ceylon). 'Yes, Papa dear.'
      Paterfamilias. 'Who is that charming young lady pla

    • by bolthole (122186)

      Wow! Fantastic story!

      Visions of "the internet generation" meets "Wall-E" meets "Robots of Dawn" !

      in 1907? !!

  • At launch last October, the set-top console and HD camera cost a whopping $599, with a $24.99 monthly service charge (now $99 yearly). While that price has since been reduced to $499 - and a $399, 720p unit introduced, it's still absurdly expensive when compared to the video calling alternatives.

    "Absurdly expensive"? An unlocked iPhone 4 costs $599. (Yes, there are iPhone discounts if you agree to pay about $1000 a year to the cellular carrier for a few years.)

  • Until they can get the camera in the middle of the display, then I find it annoying to use most video phone systems. The other persons eyes are never looking right at you. Try having a face-to-face conversation while the person is looking several inches away from your eyes and it can be annoying.

    Oh, wait, some women must experience every conversation that way...
    • by siglercm (6059)

      +1. I've often wondered if others had this same objection. We need "tele-promp-ter" technology that allows one to look at the display while his/her facial image is reflected at an angle into the webcam being used.

  • Let's not forget the two-way video wristwatch invented in the comic "Dick Tracy" by tech support guy Diet Smith in 1964. Many of us grew up dreaming of the day when we'd get to wear one of those things.

  • This reminds me that scene in Austin Powers where he first opens a laptop and tries to view a low quality, flickering video message, this after he was used to 2-way TV quality video calling from his car. That, on it's own hand reminds me it's been ages since I saw that movie and I should go watch it again now.

  • I know a guy who was working on 60Mbps video over Internet2 about 5 years ago. All the tech is ready, it's simply a matter of bandwidth.

  • Actually I'd rather have video calling in airplanes than just normal voice calls.

    As Mitch Hedberg once said: "sure, you can speak, just... use your hands".

  • by tverbeek (457094) on Thursday June 23, 2011 @02:11PM (#36544520) Homepage

    The idea of the videophone almost predates science fiction: 1879 cartoon []

  • The naked wrong number in Demolition Man.

  • by Capt.DrumkenBum (1173011) on Thursday June 23, 2011 @02:34PM (#36544940)
    I can't beleive no one else has mentioned the commlocks fro Space 1999. []
  • Forget video conferencing. Nothing of note to share. But, one of the more useful things I've seen come about from communications is desktop sharing. Things like Webex and M$ Communicator that let me show my desktop to hundreds of other people. Now, I have the power to let everyone see that exact piece of code I was talking about without having to haul my laptop over to a projector and get everyone in a room.
  • Whoever wrote the headline for this article here on Slashdot seriously needs to learn to READ. There is zero discussion about "the history of the videophone in Sci-Fi" on that article. There is mention of the fact that Star Trek used video phone technology since its inception in 1966 (loosely quoting the article). That's it. Clearly someone wanted their posting here on /. to be read, but to flat out lie to have your posting read by Sci-Fi Geeks? That's a new low! Shame on you!

"Mach was the greatest intellectual fraud in the last ten years." "What about X?" "I said `intellectual'." ;login, 9/1990