The First “Picturephone” For Video Chatting Was a Colossal Failure

Today, with apps and services like Skye and FaceTime, video telephone calls are cheap and easy, readily available on computers and smartphones. However, there was a time when AT&T had a vision that one day all telephone calls would have video as well as audio. Bell Labs started selling commercial image and phone service in 1970, but it was too expensive. They were, however, right about many aspects of video chatting. They were right that it would be a little bit awkward, with an enhanced feeling of intimacy, they were right that people would use it as a way to get out of a business trip, and they were right that someday we would all use them. They were just wrong about how much anyone would be willing to pay for them. Today, video chatting is commonplace, but it all began back in 1964 at the New York World’s Fair. Bell Labs set up public Picturephone booths in New York, Chicago, and Washington DC. You could make a 3-minute call halfway across the country, from New York to Chicago, for $27 — about $250 today. Although that was a little too pricey for most people, it wasn’t the cost that concerned them. They were more worried about how they would appear on the screen. At that time, there was no tiny picture in the corner to allow them to adjust to their most flattering angle. Still, the company forged on, convinced businesses would buy the service. When Bell Labs started up the service in 1970, they charged $75 a month in Chicago and $160 in Pittsburgh, with only 30 minutes free before additional charges kicked in. Only a handful of companies bought in, and within a few years the service was shut down. What they got wrong was their audience. Video chatting didn't really take off until people started using it with people they actually felt close to. A 3-minute, $200 video conference call sounds terrible, but having a conversation with your long-distance loved one while sitting on your couch was well worth the money.