Origins of Telecom: Early Video Conferencing Tech – CU SeeMe
Video conferencing has become the next best thing to being there in person, but it wasn’t always as easy and intuitive as it is today. In 1964 the first video phone technology, called Picture Phone, from AT&T debuted at the World’s Fair in New York. The 1980s saw the first video conferencing system from Compression Labs. By the 1990s, Macintosh released CU SeeMe, the first video conferencing software for personal computers, but it was limited to Macintosh users until 1995 when Windows version was released — and it was nothing like the full screen, high resolution video conferences you’re familiar with today.
CU SeeMe v0.1 arrived in 1992 as a video conferencing application that had no audio for the first two years of its existence. While you and another participant could see one another, you couldn’t hear each other unless you used a phone. Back then, webcams were not common. Thus, users needed to purchase a webcam in order to use the app. Likewise, Internet speeds back then were much slower than we’re accustomed to today with most users using dial-up networking. The video images were displayed in tiny 4-bit grayscale windows measuring either 320×240 or 160×120.
CU SeeMe was initially developed by Cornell University Information Technology as a free desktop videoconferencing tool to be used over high-speed campus-wide / company-wide LANs. While intended for high speed networks in an enterprise-type environment, individuals found their own uses for CU SeeMe, using the app over their slow dial-up networks to work, play, and interact with one another.
Users could also connect to what was known as a “reflector,” which gave them the ability to join a virtual community filled with other CU SeeMe users. More than 30 users at a time could join real-time video chats on any number of topics.
By 1994, audio support had been added, allowing for real-time videoconferencing without having to use a separate phone. However, many users didn’t use audio, opting instead to use the text chat feature included in the software. The use of voice was sometimes frowned upon due to factors such as the work environments at the time and the fact that many users didn’t have sound cards and speakers, and thus, wouldn’t be able to hear the audio.
In 1998, the commercial licensing rights were transferred to White Pine Software. A series of mergers and acquisitions and rebranding followed.
Today, CU See Me is largely a relic of the past, but it set the stage for the desktop video conferencing tools of today.
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