November 28, 2002 Mr. Watson, Come Here, You Look a Little Blurry By DAVID POGUE
A MAN in New York makes a phone call. But instead of just holding a handset to his head, he watches a small screen on the phone. He and his wife, in Florida, see each other as they chat, thanks to a tiny camera on each phone. They don’t only talk. They interact by gesturing and expressing themselves just as they would in person. They have arrived in the future: 1964.
It was the 1964 World’s Fair, to be precise, the first public demonstration of the AT&T Picturephone. The idea of adding video to the telephone seemed so obvious, plenty of people were certain it would replace the telephone.
A few niche variations eventually arose, like expensive corporate teleconferencing gear and Internet cams that use PC’s as intermediaries. But even after four decades, no videophone for household use over ordinary phone lines has caught on.
The new Vialta Beamer (www.vialta.com) at least stands a chance, because of three shrewd decisions by its creators. First, they realized that we already have telephones with features and looks we like. Therefore, the Beamer adds only the screen: a handsome, 3.5-inch flat panel that floats in a clear acrylic panel. The Beamer screen is dark and easily ignored whenever you’re not calling a fellow Beamer owner. Your phone remains your phone.
The second breakthrough is the Beamer’s simplicity. It goes between your phone and the wall jack, like an answering machine. (If you have an answering machine too, the Beamer goes between it and the phone.) There are no fees, accounts, activation steps or special numbers to dial. If you need one more thing to be grateful for on Thanksgiving, here’s one: that someone, somewhere is still capable of designing a high-tech appliance no more challenging than a blender.
The third inspiration is the price: $300, or $500 for a two-pack. (Vialta is willing to ship each of the pair to a different address.) That’s not exactly cheap, but it’s less than half the price of any previous videophone and well under one-quarter the price of corporate models.
After dialing a number the regular way, you punch a button on the side of the Beamer screen. A message at the other end tells your partner (co-host? viewing audience?) to push the same button to start the video. If the callee would rather not be seen right now, having just stepped out of a bed, bath or bar brawl, he or she can decline. In that case, the call proceeds videolessly.
Now a recorded voice says, “Making the video connection,” the audio drops out for 15 seconds, and a progress bar shows you how much longer you both have to wait. Then, suddenly, you see each other, loud and clear (or the videophone equivalent thereof).
You see yourself in an inset picture at the lower-right corner of the screen. You can switch it off, but it’s useful for checking your own lighting; if the light is behind you, you’re silhouetted like an anonymous whistle-blower on “60 Minutes.” If the light is in front of you, though, color and detail are pretty good – not nearly as sharp as television, but not nearly as awful as most Web broadcasts.
This lower-right video image of your own transmission is also a good reality check; there’s nothing worse than paying $500 for a pair of videophones, making an important 45-minute call to your dearest love, and then finding out you had spinach between your teeth.
Once the call is under way, though, you find out one big reason videophones aren’t yet ubiquitous: ordinary phone lines are just not “fat” enough to carry much more data than our relatively puny voices. Trying to fit a complete video and audio signal into such a narrow pipe is like trying to cook a turkey in a toaster.
A great deal of deterioration results: in the video quality, the audio quality and your expectations. The video is either very jerky or very blurry. (A control on the side of the Beamer lets you adjust the picture to suit your deterioration preference: smoother-but-blurrier or jerkier-but-sharper.) Any static on the line blows your loved one’s face into pixellated smithereens that take several seconds to reconstitute. You wind up doing an unintended impersonation of Verizon’s “Can you hear me now?” guy on TV: “Can you see me now? Can you see me now?”
Worse, you have two delays to contend with. The other person’s voice arrives about one second late, the video a couple of seconds after that. When compounded by your own transmission delays, the result is a crazy, out-of-sync version of dueling Max Headrooms. This is not the device for stand-up comedians hoping to rehearse their timing for the folks back home.
Vialta says that the quality varies by call and depends on the wiring – and that, surprisingly, overseas calls often offer better quality because newer wires are being used. (Alas, I couldn’t test this claim, as I know very few people overseas who have Beamers.) Vialta acknowledges, though, that although the Beamer’s compression technology is state of the art (it’s known as H.324, which is also compatible with some non-Beamer videophones), sending TV-quality video over ordinary phone lines is still a technological impossibility.
It’s not a total loss: as with cellphone calls and overseas calls, you find yourself willing to accept some loss of quality in exchange for the sheer magic of communicating in such amazing ways. Seeing the faces, expressions and kitchens of your callers is, after all, a powerful thing; you feel excited to have lived long enough to see the future. Nobody complained about the sound quality when they called the first man in space, did they?
But video and audio static aren’t the only videophone obstacles; camera-shyness is another. The human “don’t look at me” gene can be a powerful motivator. Ask anyone who doesn’t like to be photographed how they’d like to be on camera during every phone call.
Then there’s the privacy issue, which isn’t quite the same thing. The beauty of the ordinary telephone is that you can doodle, clean your office or even fix dinner while you’re chatting, without the caller suspecting that you’re not providing your undivided attention. (Well, usually.) That’s an unspoken but significant component of the phone-call experience, one that most people would find hard to give up.
The Beamer does have a privacy mode. One touch on a button freezes the transmitted frame, in effect plastering your caller’s screen with a still photo of you. This is your opportunity to blow your nose or perform other grooming acts undetected. (A second press restores the live video feed.) So yes, you can have privacy whenever you want it – but of course, your caller also knows that you’re up to something, which opens a whole new chapter in Pandora’s Book of High-Tech Etiquette.
The carefully designed Beamer’s price, simplicity and compatibility with any old telephone are welcome videophone advancements. Even so, the delay-prone, video-staticky Beamer isn’t a very good communications device, which could be considered a drawback in a videophone. It’s unlikely that many people will be making video calls to home a few Thanksgivings from now.
But when distance separates you from someone you love, even a jerky video call can unleash a rush of emotions, a sense of contact, that ordinary phone calls can’t. (For proof, watch the weepy “We’ve got videotapes from your family back home” episode of each season’s “Survivor.”)
The Beamer, glitches and all, might be welcome in the home of a faraway grandparent, spouse or anyone else you care about to the tune of $500. Soon enough, the ordinary phone call will be only the third-best thing to being there.