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The Evolution of Video Conferencing

Video conferencing cameras are so commonplace in the work and home environments that it’s easy to take them for granted. As recently as 30 years ago however, the tech world was marvelling at a video conference which connected just 50 users across the globe.

It’s clear that the evolution of video conferencing technology has been explosive in recent years, but what about the origins of video calling, or possibly the future? We’ve turned the pages of history to see where we’ve come from and where we might be heading.

JPL Agora USB video conferencing camera

The Concept of Teleconferencing

Most things you read online will say video conferencing started in the 1800’s but let’s be realistic here, the tech didn’t exist, you couldn’t even make a phone call yet so a video call was a long way off.

In reality, this time was more about ideas rather than real world capability as people began to use audio communication in the 1870’s. Bell Labs were at the front of this new wave of ideas with the concept of transmitting video and audio over a cable.

1920 – Real World Progress

In reality we have to look to 1927 before we arrive at the first transmission of a moving image, when a one way video broadcast took place from the White House to New York. At over 200 miles, this was a real milestone, though it was really a TV broadcast rather than a video conference.

Technology has always been a fast evolving field and just 4 years later in 1931, the first two-way video communication took place between two AT&T offices. By the middle of the 1930’s a German inventor was also making headway in this area, Georg Schubert’s “visual telephone system” allowed users in Germany to make video calls between cities, though this was limited in its reach with just 620 miles of transmission lines.

Unfortunately, the progression of these platforms was halted by outside influences, with the AT&T system being a victim of the Great Depression and the German scheme of World War II.

1960 to 1980 – Post War Evolution

Fast forward a couple of decades and we once again find AT&T picking up the baton at the 1964 World Fair, when they showed off an early video calling platform. Their system, called PicturePhone Mod I could only deliver 0.5 frames per second, but importantly, the picture was clear and stable, a key step on the journey as shortly after this, a commercial service was introduced.

Public “video phone booths” in four cities would allow members of the public to make video calls between them, however the service was expensive, with a 3 minute call from New York to Chicago costing around $27.

By 1969, AT&T had released the PicturePhone Mod II, this upgraded version now supported video at 30 frames per second and on the back of this there was an effort to launch a PicturePhone network.

On the surface this sounded like a logical progress and expansion opportunity to bring video conferencing to a wider audience. Unfortunately the network never really took off, it was cost prohibitive with contracts from $160 for 30 minutes call time and with only 71 calls made in the first 6 months, by 1973 the PicturePhone network was closed.

Two other important steps around this time were the creation of two new protocols which would mark an important step on the video conferencing roadmap. These were the development of the Network Video Protocol (NVP) in 1976 and the Packet Video Protocol (PVP) in 1981, the introduction of these video codecs would, in time, help to open video calling up to wider audiences.

1980 to 1999 – The Technology Age

By the early 80’s, competition was starting to heat up in the teleconferencing space with the CLI-T1 system being launched by Compression Labs. There were several major drawbacks to this system however, one of which was the huge $1,000 per hour calling cost, one was the $250,000 cost of the equipment and the final one was the amount of space the equipment needed (it took up a whole room).

Moving towards the mid-eighties, 1984 to be precise, a group of MIT students and tutors created PicTel Corporation (later known as PictureTel) following their work on developing a new video codec. A development that showed again that the video conference landscape was still developing and evolving.

It wasn’t until 1986 that PictureTel launched its first product and 1987 saw its first meaningful sales, but their influence is still felt today with many modern video codecs such as H264, still being based on PictureTel’s movement compensation and transform coding ideas.

By 1988, Mitsubishi were also moving into the teleconferencing marketplace with a system which could send snippets of video during a call, however this wasn’t the best from a user perspective as the call effectively had to be paused while the video was sent.

By the end of the decade, PictureTel’s reputation was growing and this saw AT&T select them to host an International video conference in 1989. In an event which featured full motion video and audio, it could be argued that this really was the first true video conference.

As we moved into the 1990’s, PictureTel would partner more closely with IBM to focus on solutions for personal computers.

They say that some of the best product developments are born out of the need to solve a problem and this was no different with the webcam as we know it today. In 1991, a group of students at Cambridge University wanted an easy way to keep an eye on their coffee pot to see when it was empty. Their solution was a 129 x 129 pixel camera, which ran at 1 frame per second.

Around the same time as the Cambridge webcam, computer based video conference software more familiar with what we’d recognise today was starting to come to market, CUSeeMe landed in 1992. Initially launched for Macintosh only, by 1994 it was also available on Windows machines. The important development here is that CUSeeMe allowed users to make point to point video calls without the need for a separate server.

The webcam technology of the early 90’s was also beginning to progress by the mid-90’s with Connectix launching their QuickCam webcam, with a superior resolution and frame rates, the 240 x 320 pixel image was much improved but still only provided a grayscale image.

There was also a hive of activity going on with other providers at the same time, with AT&T launching a full colour domestic video phone giving 10 frames per second in 1992, though it only featured a small screen.

By 1995 we’d seen the world’s largest video conference which connected 50 locations for more than an hour, a huge demonstration of capability for video conference technology of the time and something which we wouldn’t think twice about now!

Other key developments in 1995 was the launch of Polycom (now Poly) with their Show Station product and the love it or hate it “Webex” video meeting platform was also being launched into the market for the first time. The rapid development of hardware and software through this period really laid the foundation for the Millennium ahead.

2000 & The Next Millennium

Post 2000, the rate of development in the area of video communication has been phenomenal and has very much democratised access to video communication away from big business to the person on the street and small business. Potentially nothing made as big of a contribution as the Apple iPhone 4 with its front facing camera, allowing a user to see the screen and be seen at the same time.

As with the 1990’s, the dawn of the new Millennium saw another wave of technology providers launching new products into the marketplace.

  • Skype launches in 2003 and is bought by eBay in 2005
  • Lifesize demonstrated the first HD video conference in 2004
  • Polycom introduce their first HD video conference system in 2006
  • Zoom was founded in 2011
  • Microsoft Teams was released in 2017

While many might not see it as video conferencing, the rise of smartphone technology through the early 00’s and 10’s allowed many software firms to incorporate video communication into their products, as did the inclusion of integrated webcams in laptops.

This allowed many people to become familiar with the concept of visual communication ahead of the biggest environmental impact on video conferencing, COVID-19.

COVID has been hugely transformational for the VC industry. Interest in both products and software grew exponentially overnight as many were forced to work from home and companies scrambled for solutions to allow their teams to communicate effectively. It has also forced end users to become comfortable with different ways of communicating, prior to the pandemic, many users were reluctant to communicate via video conference.

This change in working pattern has also meant that software providers have developed at an impressive rate, with new product features being released on an almost weekly basis.

The Future of Video Conferencing

With all that’s gone before, we may think that video communication has reached its peak, but technology never stands still and the future of video communication technology looks as exciting as ever.

4K video is an obvious next step, with a great range of 4K video conference cameras available the equipment is already there, but software providers are yet to catch up as we discussed recently.

But thinking beyond resolution alone, the development of augmented, virtual and mixed reality could bring huge changes to video calls. The potential here is to share and interact on projects in a virtual world, rather than just on a 2D screen, experiencing objects and workspaces in 3D.

We’ve also been hearing a lot about the Metaverse in recent years, Meta’s vision of the business space of the future. With some companies already embracing the concept, training and onboarding is already being provided to new starters who are working remotely in order to give a sense of connection to others.

There remains so much more to be achieved with video conferencing and while we’re in a great place right now, the future provides a huge amount of potential and opportunity for both technology providers and end users.