A Brief History of Video Conferencing

Modern Times trailer (1936).webm – Wikimedia

Telecommunications tools today, especially video conferencing, make the world a smaller place. With just a few clicks or taps, you can initiate or join a global video conference, seeing and hearing the other participants in full motion video. The technology powering video conferencing is truly amazing. While Skype was one of the first to popularize video conferencing in 2003, the idea of communicating over long distances both audibly and visually dates back more than one hundred years! Let’s take a stroll through time to learn more about how one of the most innovative tools in use today evolved.

Video Conferencing in the 1800s and 1900s

Yes, we’re going all the way to the late 1800s, the 1870s to be exact. During this time, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, the concept of transmitting an image alongside audio over a wire was born. In the years following, the concept was largely relegated to the realm of science fiction. EM Forster’s The Machine Stops novel depicts a futurist post-apocalyptic world where people rarely travel; they communicate via video screens and have all of their needs served by an all-encompassing “machine.”

It took about a half a century before the concept materialized in 1927 when Bell Labs connected several Washington, D.C. officials with the president of AT&T in New York City in an audio/video phone call. This call included a two-way audio connection and a one-way video connection.

Yet, the technology didn’t go far, other than in the movies. Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times, for example, featured a video phone where a factory executive relayed instructions to factory workers.

In 1964, the “Picturephone” debuted at the World’s Fair in New York City. As innovative as the Picturephone was at the time, it failed to take off. Some believe that people of that era disliked face-to-face communication over the phone while others think the one-to-one nature doomed it to fail. After all, where video conferencing today really shines is in group settings.  Several organizations were involved in spurring this technology forward including Post Office Telecom (British Telecom) in Europe and, later, Stanford University with its Virtual Auditorium.

In 1982, Compression Labs launched its CLI TI video conference system. Big and bulky, CLI TI also came with a huge price tag of $250,000 — plus, each call cost $1,000 per hour.

During this era, the hardware alone took up an entire room. This coupled with the high costs involved meant only a few larger businesses could adopt the technology.

By the mid-1990s, personal computers and Internet access became more common, opening the doors to desktop video conferencing. Intel was one of the pioneers with its ProShare for Windows PC software. Users at the time needed a PC with a sound card, microphone, and webcam — and high speed Internet.

Video Conferencing — or “Distributed Collaboration” — in the 2000s

In 2000, Lester F. Ludwig, J. Chris Lauwers, Keith A. Lantz, Gerald J. Burnett, and Emmett R. Burns filed for a patent, which was later granted to Collaborative Properties, Inc. (a wholly owned subsidiary of Avistar Communication Corporation),  for a “computer-based system designed to enhance collaboration between and among individuals who are separated by distance and/or time.”  They referred to this as “distributed collaboration.”







The inventors noted the shortcomings of other systems of the time such as:

  • A lack of high quality video
  • Limited data-sharing capabilities
  • (For non-visual communications technologies) The inability to convey facial and non-verbal cues

The inventors envisioned users starting with a “collaborative multimedia workstation” (CMW) with high quality video and audio capabilities installed within a system architecture with separate real-time and asynchronous networks.

Data Sharing Component

In addition, the inventors included a data-sharing component where visual information such as screenshots (or “snapshots of screens” as the inventors called them) and the sharing of both he control and display of applications (application sharing). Each participant had the ability to annotate or point at the shared visual data. Plus, the entire teleconference, including audio and video as well as shared data, could be recorded from each collaborative multimedia workstation.

This invention certainly had promise, and many of the concepts noted in the original patent are commonly included in modern video conferencing solutions.

However, high speed access to the internet became more common,  everyday computers came equipped with microphones and webcams off the shelf, and simple web-based video chatting solutions such as Skype emerged.

In fact, Skype arrived in 2003. It was no longer necessary to have serious network architecture in order to conduct free audio calls, complete with text messaging and the ability to share files with other people. All you needed was a free download and Internet access. Video calling soon followed in 2006.

Though Skype helped bring the concept of desktop video calls to the mainstream, it wasn’t alone. Apple’s FaceTime launched in 2010. Other services soon followed.

Today, various companies over affordable video conferencing options and plans both as unified communications systems for the enterprise and as cloud-based services. Either way, the days of $1000 per hour calls are over.

Read on



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