AT&T Introduces the Picturephone, the First Video Conference System, at the New York World's Fair

The first Picturephone test system, built in 1956, was crude - it transmitted an image only once every two seconds.

But by 1964 a complete experimental system, the "Mod 1," had been developed. To test it, the public was invited to place calls between special exhibits at Disneyland and the New York World's Fair. In both locations, visitors were carefully interviewed afterward by a market research agency.

People, it turned out, didn't like Picturephone. The equipment was too bulky, the controls too unfriendly, and the picture too small. But the Bell System was convinced that Picturephone was viable. Trials went on for six more years. In 1970, commercial Picturephone service debuted in downtown Pittsburgh and AT&T executives confidently predicted that a million Picturephone sets would be in use by 1980.

What happened? Despite its improvements, Picturephone was still big, expensive, and uncomfortably intrusive. It was only two decades later, with improvements in speed, resolution, miniaturization, and the incorporation of Picturephone into another piece of desktop equipment, the computer, that the promise of a personal video communication system was realized.

The idea of a two way audio visual conference was conceived as early as 1927 at Bell Labs. An early version of Picturephone, a desktop telephone with video was shown in 1964, but never made it into the market place. Bell introduced the Picturephone Meeting Service featuring video-equipped meeting rooms in 1970, but discontinued them in 1985 due to lack of customer interest. (One reason is that there were only a few rooms at the time.) Since that time, several companies have continued development of these systems.

In the United States AT&T conducted extensive research and development of videophones, leading to public demonstrations of its trademarked Picturephone product and service in the 1960s, including displays at the 1964 New York World's Fair. The demonstration units usually used small oval housings on swivel stands, intended to stand on desks. Similar AT&T Picturephone units were also featured at the Telephone Association of Canada Pavilion (the 'Bell' Pavilion) at Expo 67, an International World's Fair held in Montreal, Canada in 1967. Demonstration units were available at these fairs for the public to test, with fair-goers permitted to make videophone calls to volunteer recipients at other locations.

The United States would not see its first public video telephone booths until 1964, when AT&T installed their earliest commercial videophone unit, the Picturephone Mod I, in public booths in three cities: New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago. Picturephone booths were set up in New York's Grand Central Station and elsewhere. With fanfare, Picturephones were also installed in offices of Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, and at other progressive companies. However the use of reservation time slots and their initial cost of US$16 per three minute call at public booths greatly limited their appeal to the point that they were discontinued by 1968.

Unrelated difficulties at New York Telephone also slowed AT&T's efforts, and few customers signed up for the service in either city. A CNN report on 6 September 2001 stated that Picturephone service only had a total of 500 subscribers at its peak, and the service faded away in the 1970s. AT&T's initial Mod I and its upgraded Picturephone Mod II programs,, researched principally at its Bell Labs, spanned 15 years and consumed US$500 million, eventually meeting with commercial failure. AT&T concluded that its early videophone was a "concept looking for a market" and discontinued its Picturephone service in the late 1970s. The research and development programs conducted by Bell Labs were highly notable for the beyond-the-state-of-the-art results produced in materials science, advanced telecommunications, microelectronics and information technologies.

Color on AT&T's Picturephone was not employed with their early models. These Picturephone units packaged Plumbicon cameras and small CRT displays within their housings. The cameras were located atop their screens to help users see eye to eye. See this section for more information on Picturephone technology. Later generation display screens were larger than in the original demonstration units, approximately six inches (15 cm) square in a roughly cubical cabinet.

AT&T would then market its VideoPhone 2500 to the general public from 1992 to 1995 with prices starting at US$1,500 and later dropping to $1,000, again with very little commercial success.