50 years of Video Conferencing

The pace of technological change these days is incredible. We are seeing new technologies emerge almost overnight. The journey to widespread availability of video conferencing started all the way back in the 1960s though.

In this piece we’ll take a whistle-stop tour of the history of video conferencing from then until today. After reading this piece you will know about the important milestones for the technology, and have a good idea of where we are today in the industry, and why.


AT&T Company in the 1960s
The first company to offer a true video conferencing solution was AT&T. The Picture Phone was unveiled at World’s Fair in New York, in 1964. It became widely available. We use the phrase widely available loosely as it was a mammoth expense at $160 per month back in 1970. To put that into context, factoring in inflation, that is $981.03 in today’s money.

Businesses didn’t adopt the technology in vast numbers, perhaps due to the price, perhaps due to limitations that all new technologies tend to have. Developers worked hard to improve the picture quality, compression techniques for video and the data transfer rate. Development at that time was primarily geared towards commercial utilisation of video conferencing solutions.

The breakthrough moment in the technology was when Eriksson demonstrated that it was possible to use video telephone technology to communicate transatlantically. This first LME video telephone call alerted businesses and developers to the true cost saving potential of video conference solutions. They began in earnest developing advanced techniques to introduce to the market.

New advancements in the 70s and 80s
In 1976 we saw the Network Video Protocol (NVP), and in 1981 The Packet Video Protocol (PVP) technologies invented. These new ways of operation enabled video conferencing to reach a new level of maturation, but remained only in the private corporate domain and the laboratory for some time to come.

In 1976 Nippon Telegraph and Telephone put in place a connection between Osaka and Tokyo, enabling video conferencing communication. IBM Japan went even further when they built a 48,000 bps connection to link up their US and Japanese offices for weekly strategy meetings.

The commercialisation of video conferencing in the 80s
Video conferencing technology got to the point where it was commercialised in 1982. Compression Labs offered a product costing $250,000 and $1000 per hour. It demanded huge resources but was the only available option on the market until 1986. In 1986 PictureTel offered their solution costing $80,000 and $100 per hour line fee. In just 4 years the cost of the technology had plummeted.

Between 1982 and 1986 in-house video conferencing solutions were established by the US military and several large organisations. Momentum was building.

Video conferencing picks up pace in the 90s
In the 1990s new technology, such as Internet protocol (IP) enhancements, and improvements in compression techniques, led to dramatically more accessible video conferencing systems. In 1991, the first PC based solution was introduced by IBM, named PicTel. Video was only in black and white and the system cost $20,000 and $30 per hour. The cost was still a major barrier to widespread adoption of the technology. Shortly after the IBM technology was released to the market, DARTnet achieved a first, linking up 12 research sites throughout the UK and the US using a transcontinental IP network. The company is still in the industry today, but is now called CAIRN.

It was soon after this that instant messaging systems, such as MSN messenger, NetMeeting and Yahoo! Messenger began offering video conferencing solutions to the masses. The truth is that the quality was very poor, but the solutions were free so the masses began to adopt this exciting new wave of technology.

Commercial video conferencing revolution
CU-SeeMe developed the best video conferencing solution yet for the Apple Macintosh in 1992. Although it lacked audio when it was released, picture clarity was relatively excellent for the time. In 1993 and 1994 audio was added to the software, as was multipoint capability. In 1994 the software was released on Windows platforms. The limitation of the technology was its use of UDP broadcasting and connections over peer-to-peer. This somewhat limited the market for the software; it was mainly seen in training facilities and educational establishments.

At the same time that CU-SeeMe were developing their solution, AT&T were targeting customers with a $1500 video phone. This was the first commercial phone solution that was successful in attracting a decent market.

With other solutions arriving to the market, such as the MBone system, and an INRIA system, 1992 was the year that the technology really got some traction in a real sense. The International telecommunications union (ITU) took note and began developing and ratifying standards for the technology.

ITU standards arrive
The business world began to take video conferencing solutions seriously with the arrival of standards and specifications. Standards were developed for low bit rate communications and packet-based multimedia applications, which were further updated and revised in 1998. Interoperability was made even more possible by the Moving Picture Experts Group MPEG-4 ISO standard. Things were falling into place.

At this time companies came, failed commercially and left the market. Some failed and persisted. It was a pioneering phase with its casualties and successes.

Colour video, more standards and messenger systems
The Cornell University CU-SeeMe application 1.0 was released in 1998. It was available for both PC and Mac and had a significant breakthrough, colour video. This was received by the market very favourably.

A number of groups of developers were building solutions appropriate for business communication. Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), announced by NMUSIC in 1999, gained a fair number of supporters due to its advantages over H.323. Microsoft joined the fan base.

1999 saw a number of video conferencing releases, such as NetMeeting V3.OB, and the first multipoint as standard video conferencing solution over H.323, from PSInet. The year also saw the arrival of version 2 of the MPEG.-4 ISO standard.

H.323 continued to develop apace and ran into its 3rd and 4th releases. At this time mobile phone manufacturers also began to cotton on to the idea that video could be the future. They scrambled for space in the market and Samsung released the 3G MPEG-4 video phone; a great success in Japan.

In 2001, the first live broadcasts from war correspondents in Afghanistan were beamed over satellite from video phones. This was a big change in the use of video conferencing, a wide scale live broadcast. By March 2004 the ITU-TH.264 protocol was ready for release. This was significantly more flexible and powerful than prior protocols.

The Internet improves
By 2003 we had seen dramatic increases in the speed and availability of high-speed Internet. The costs of Internet, and the technology for video capture and video display were significantly lower than they had been a decade before. This combined with the availability of PCs and free instant messaging software to make consumers even more aware of and keen to use video conferencing solutions.

Higher educational establishments, and schools around the world, began to use the technology to both lecture to students and to collaborate between peers. 2004 saw more refinements in applications and a Linux based video conferencing solution.

In April we saw Applied Global Technologies release a camera that was able to track different speakers and therefore focus on the active communicator in a video conferencing call. 2004 also saw the first widely available multipoint video solution, delivered to the market by WiredRed. In 2008 the same company released a cloud-based video conferencing solution named Nefsis. By 2009 this product had evolved to include echo cancellation and enhanced collaboration tools to enable file sharing and even live application sharing.

Everything gets better
Nowadays we have better PC and mobile processors, speedier Internet, cloud-based and proprietary hardware solutions. The market is mature and providers have found their niche delivering solutions to different target groups. At Videonations we are able to offer high definition video solutions and a range of peripheral products to enhance the video conferencing experience. The journey to where we are today has been long and has had its casualties; but it has brought us to a point where video conferencing is now mainstream in both commercial and consumer markets.

The rise and rise of mobile technology and rollout of 4G connectivity in the UK will only drive the technology onto ever more impressive standards.