A Brief History Of Video Conferencing

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Video conferencing made its way into flexible offices in the late 1970s, but it has been around for almost a century.
  • Surprisingly, video conferencing or the ‘picturephone’ has been around for almost a century.
  • The earliest public demonstration of a two-way video conference took place in 1930, but it took several decades before video conferencing was commercially adopted.
  • Video conferencing made its way into flexible offices in the late 1970s and later became more widely adopted alongside advances in Internet broadband and hardware.

There is no question that 2020 has accelerated changes in how we communicate in the workplace, and with each other. A big part of that shift has been the mass adoption of video conferencing technology.

Video conferencing is not new technology, despite incredible gains in both availability and use in the general public in recent years. It’s actually not even recent technology, on a technological time scale.   

So where did it all begin? 

Surprisingly, video phones or conferencing has been around for almost a century, conceptually dating back even further to the development of audio transmission by wires in the 1870s.

The earliest public demonstration of a video conference was held in April of 1927 between then-U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in Washington, D.C. and journalists, AT&T, and Bell Laboratories officials in New York City. Although the audio portion of the call was two-way, the video was one-way, with only the audience in the New York City audience able to see Mr. Hoover. Just 3 years later, in 1930, two-way video conferencing was publicly demonstrated between AT&T’s headquarters & Bell Laboratories in New York City.

Videophone booths launched in 1964

However, it wasn’t until several decades later that the technology would be developed for commercial use. Following years of research and development at Bell Labs, the first videophone booths were launched in 1964, followed by the AT&T Picturephone service.

A New York Times article from 1968 quoted AT&T chairman, H.I. Romnes about the future of Picturephones. “I think for example that Picturephone service will be in very considerable use within less than ten years,” he said. “By this I mean person-to-person connections, over a switched network and similar connections between people and computers, with the output of the computers shown on the Picturephone screen.”

However, the product failed in the market and the service was ultimately canceled by AT&T a few years later.

Despite the early market failures of the products, video conferencing technology continued to be developed and deployed, largely as expensive corporate services.

Video conferencing in early business centers

In a recent conversation with Frank Cottle, now CEO of Alliance Virtual Offices, he discussed his early involvement with video conferencing technology. Beginning in 1979, his company’s executive office centers were being built as technology centers because everyone was looking for computing power and advanced phone systems to conduct business.

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    Suggested Reading: History of the Flexible Workspace Industry

    Video conferencing during that time was primarily used by executive teams and engineering teams and had very expensive equipment, transmission, and setup costs associated with the technology. “It was different back then,” he said, “you’d have five people in a conference room at each end that would get together to solve a big engineering problem, for example.

    “It was easier and more pleasant than having that entire team travel.”

    Still, use of video conferencing was problematic. There were no industry standards, so intermediary services were needed in order to complete connections. This made the technology even more expensive than it already was and did not make business sense for smaller companies. So, while technologically speaking it worked, it wasn’t convenient.

    It wasn’t until closer to the end of the twentieth century that the technology finally began to see widespread adoption by a broader audience.

    Advances in Internet broadband

    Advances in internet broadband, communication standards via ISDN, as well as improvements in video codecs made video conferencing technology much more practical and affordable for general use.

    Products like WebEx, launched in 1995, and GoToMeeting, in 2005, enabled video conferencing to be commercially adopted in the way it was envisioned by H.I. Romnes in the early days of Bell Labs.

    Today, with the proliferation of high bandwidth wireless and wired internet connectivity, smart phones, and cloud computing, video conferencing has become ubiquitous with millions of people everyday making video calls both socially and professionally. So many video calls are being made, that many in the remote workforce are now suffering from Zoom fatigue and requesting entire workdays be video call free.

    So what is next for video conferencing?

    It is projected that growth in video conferencing use will continue in the next decade as adoption continues to increase for everything from remote work and telemedicine to social calls.

    The technology is also expected to continue to evolve. Advances in 3D technology, more integrations, and increased security features are all likely to play a role. How quickly technological advances become mainstream, however, will depend on how readily available, affordable, and convenient they are.

    Author’s Footnote: The author is the grandniece of H.I. Romnes, quoted in the story, although she never got to meet him in person.

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