Picture this

Memory Lane

The 1964 World’s Fair took place over a sprawl of 643 acres in Queens, N.Y., at a time when a swelling U.S. economy and a shared sense of possibility seemed to permeate the American psyche. One of the contributors to the vibe was the emergence of technologies that seemed to suggest a new era of progress. Suited to the temperament of the day was the theme of the World’s Fair: “Man’s Achievements in an Expanding Universe.”

The two-year exhibition was an optimistic shrine to invention: Rockets, computers, household gadgets, new types of plastic and even a live musical show from Dupont called “The Magic of Chemicals” enthralled visitors.

One of the most attention-getting displays at the exhibition came from the telephone goliath AT&T and was called the “Picturephone.” Visitors to the Bell Telephone display could sit in a small booth and talk by phone to people at nearby booths while watching them via an oval screen about the size and shape of a football. At a time when an almost spiritual faith in technology prevailed, the Picturephone was an iconic symbol of the new possibilities in modern communications.

It has been more than 40 years since workers tore down and packed away the last of the displays from that seminal World’s Fair, and only now is the vision of sort of telephone-television hybrid emerging as an everyday reality.

But it’s doing so in a way nobody – certainly not AT&T – could have envisioned in the mid-1960s. Rather than depending on a carefully arranged supply chain from a dominant manufacturer, today’s video-telephony adopters are making use of widely available, inexpensive technologies that ride atop highly personalized computing systems already in place. Like so much of modern telecommunications technology, progressing into a new medium like video-enabled telephony isn’t so much a matter of inventing an ambitious new platform as it is layering a few key elements on top of an existing one.

Nobody could have envisioned that in 1964. And even for decades to follow, telecommunications engineers worked to realize the Picturephone vision in much the way Ma Bell originally had conceived of it: as a telephone platform onto which a crude video screen had been appended. Hamstrung by cost considerations and by struggles coaxing acceptable video signals from the wire-thin copper phone networks on which the idea depended, developers were unable to ignite consumer interest in a technology that had seemed so intuitively appealing for decades.

As is the case frequently today, multiple propellants kick-started the “Picturephone” concept: battle-tested digital encoding/decoding techniques that transform audio and video signals into malleable, replicable hieroglyphics; revved-up transmission lines that can accommodate lots of information; and the benevolent reach of Moore’s Law, which has oozed its way onto the shelves at your friendly local electronics store. A Picturephone-era engineer for AT&T, transported four decades into the future, would have been stunned to realize something called a “Webcam,” or a miniature video camera suitable for projecting live video images across a broadband IP network, is available at Circuit City for $49. (After, of course, recovering from the pure shock of realizing there is something called the Internet.)

Another instigating force behind the proliferation of video-telephony over the Internet – the computer peripheral maker Logitech Inc. recently sold its 25 millionth Webcam – is accessibility. Thanks to inexpensive or free software from the likes of AOL, Yahoo, Skype and others, the economic barrier to messing around with a Webcam is almost nil. Plus, after years of torment at the hands of early-generation PCs, even casual users generally can install and launch a Webcam application without the need for cursing or calling on a nearby teenager for help.

Also shocking to the old AT&T, one supposes, is the sheer breadth of activity associated with an extension of the original Picturephone concept. In Sacramento, an upscale pet-boarding facility called Wag Hotels has planted live Webcams within 23 “luxury suites” so that owners can check up on Fido while on vacation across the globe. So it goes in the new world of video telephony – or something akin to it. It’s not exactly what AT&T had in mind when it showed off a technology that allowed visitors in one exhibit booth to converse and see visitors in another. But it’s a reminder that once unleashed by a convergence of technological and economic forces, the true value of technology is realized not by those who invent it, but those who are creative enough to picture an entire new range of possibility.

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