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The first commercial video call took place 50 years ago today



With the advent of smaller cameras and advances in signal compression, in switchboards and circuits, AT&T has been able to create Picturephone Mod II for home and office use. It had a 5.5 by 5-inch black and white screen, with a resolution of 250 lines and a refresh rate of 30 interlaced frames per second. The camera had a resolution equivalent to 0.8 megapixels.

The Mod II also had an integrated mirror, which you can turn to show yourself or the documents on your desk or table ̵

1; in essence, a first form of screen sharing. AT&T charged $ 160 a month to use it, the equivalent of a whopping $ 1,092 today, and you would get generous 30 minutes of call time.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the device has not taken off. Only 450 Mod IIs were in use in 1973. The company predicted that 100,000 Picturephones would be active on its network by 1975.

The company, which invested half a billion dollars in the research and development of video telephones from the 1950s to the early 1970s, continued to try and make various incarnations of Picturephone successful until the 1990s. It failed due to high costs, low demand and an alleged widespread social reluctance not seen on the phone.

Now, of course, billions of people have smartphones, tablets and computers with webcams, and many of us are more than happy to push our faces on the Internet and share our faces in video calls. Days changed, really. The Mod II might not have been the turning point that AT&T hoped for at the time, but it was a milestone in video calling technology. It is definitely worth celebrating.


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