Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What Happened to the Videophone?

Growing up in Southern California, we enjoyed going to Disneyland more frequently than our friends and relatives who only visited from time to time.

My favorite area was Tomorrowland and one of my favorite exhibits was seeing the videophones.

For years, we would go and see the same exhibit. You'd sit in a booth while someone else would sit in another booth about 20 feet away. You could then talk to them while you saw them on a television screen and vice versa.

Every year, we were told that videophones were coming in our lifetime. We would be able to communicate with friends and neighbors around the world and see them as well as hear them.

But the technical hurdles were high. Televisions were expensive. The ability to send so much video information over far distances was also very high. I could only hope to see a videophone in my lifetime.

Then the world changed. The Internet happened.

All of a sudden, televisions not only became much less expensive, but not needed. We had computers with screens whose computing horsepower was rising dramatically while the cost per unit of performance plummeted.

Along with inexpensive screens, the ability to move large amounts of data became essentially free.

And so what entered are a number of services — many of them also free — that allow people to do what is now called a "video chat" on their computers. Skype is probably the best known of these software applications, but there are hundreds of others.

The strange part is that when I was sitting in that booth at Disneyland, I thought that when I had the ability to use a videophone, I would do it all the time. I don't.

I still make phone calls, but rarely do I use the video features. It's not just that picking up a phone is easier, but I don't always want to see the person on the other end of the line or even have them see me.

And while I in my mid-50s am not always the best indicator of what's hot with the younger generation, my 13-year-old daughter, who has a far more sensitive finger on the pulse of teen technology, doesn't use video calling much, either.

Sure, my daughter like to video chat with her friends. In fact, she uses the video calling features more than she uses a regular telephone.

Where I have seen video calling in popular use is among the young, digitally-connected companies who want do have video conferences to save on travel time and costs, and the occasional special call to someone to show off something.

I earlier reported that during a trip to China last summer, we were able to place a video call from the Great Wall to my brother in California so that his two young children could see what we were seeing. And the cost was zero.

While it's surprising how the reality of video calls hasn't turned out to be what we thought it would be, I can't say I'm surprised. It really is difficult to predict the future or how people will use inventions.

But now I want my flying car. When traffic on I-95 or the Merritt is bad, I want to unfold the wings and get on my way.
Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 25 January 2012.