The History of Video Conferencing – Moving forward at video speed

No new technology evolves smoothly, and video conferencing had more than its share of bumps along the way before becoming the widespread communication staple it is today. The history of video conferencing in its earliest form dates back to the 1960s when AT&T introduced the Picturephone at the New York World’s Fair. Although viewed as an intriguing oddity, it never became popular and was too expensive to be practical for most consumers when it was offered for $160 a month in 1970. The commercial use of real video conferencing was first realized with Ericsson’s demonstration of the first transatlantic LME video call. Soon after, other companies began refining video conferencing technologies, including advances such as Network Video Protocol (NVP) in 1976 and Packet Video Protocol (PVP) in 1981. However, none of these saw commercial use and remained in laboratory or private company use. In 1976, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone set up video conferencing (VC) between Tokyo and Osaka for corporate purposes. IBM Japan followed suit in 1982, setting up VC running at 48000 bps to connect to already established internal IBM video conferencing connections in the United States so they could hold weekly meetings. 1980s introduce commercial video conferencing 1982 Compression Labs introduces its $250,000 VC system with $1,000 an hour lines to the world. The system was huge, consuming enormous resources being able to trip 15 amp circuit breakers. However, it was the only working VC system available until 1986 when PictureTel’s VC came out with its much cheaper $80,000 system with $100 lines per hour. In the time between these two commercially offered systems, other video conferencing systems were developed that were never offered commercially. The history of video conferencing is not complete without mentioning these systems, which were either prototypes or systems specifically designed for internal use by a variety of companies or organizations, including the military. By 1984, Datapoint was using the Datapoint MINX system on its Texas campus and had made the system available to the military. In the late 1980s, Mitsubishi started selling a still phone that basically flopped in the market. They dropped the line two years after its introduction. In 1991 IBM introduced the first PC-based video conferencing system – PicTel. It was a black and white system at what was then an incredibly cheap $30 an hour for the lines while the system itself cost $20,000. By June of the same year, DARTnet had successfully connected a transcontinental IP network of over a dozen research sites in the United States and the United Kingdom using T1 trunks. Today, DARTnet has evolved into the CAIRN system, connecting dozens of institutions. CU-SeeMe revolutionizes video conferencing One of the most famous systems in the history of video conferencing was CU-SeeMe, developed in 1992 for the Macintosh system. Although the first version had no audio, it was the best video system designed for the period. By 1993, the MAC program had multipoint capability, and by 1994, CU-SeeMe MAC was true video conferencing with audio. Realizing the limitations of MAC compatibility in a Windows world, the developers worked diligently to release CU-SeeME for Windows (no audio) in April 1994, closely followed by the audio version, CU-SeeMe v0.66b1 for Windows im August 1995. In 1992, AT&T launched its own $1,500 videophone for the domestic market. It was a borderline success. In the same year, the world’s first MBone audio/video transmission took place and in July, INRIA’s video conferencing system was introduced. This is the year that video conferencing for businesses around the world really exploded for the first time, eventually leading to the standards developed by the ITU. International Telecommunications Union Develops Coding Standards The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) began developing standards for videoconferencing coding in 1996 when it introduced the H.263 standard to reduce transmission bandwidth for low-bit-rate communications. Other standards have been developed, including H.323 for packet-based multimedia communications. These are a variety of other telecommunications standards that were revised and updated in 1998. In 1999, the MPEG-4 standard was developed by the Moving Picture Experts Group as an ISO standard for multimedia content. In 1993, VocalChat Novell IPX networks introduced their video conferencing system, but it was doomed from the start and didn’t last long. Microsoft finally got on the videoconferencing bandwagon in August 1996 with NetMeeting, a derivative of PictureTel’s Liveshare Plus (although there was no video in that version). In December of the same year, Microsoft NetMeeting v2.0b2 with video was released. In the same month, VocalTec’s Internet Phone v4.0 for Windows was introduced. VRVS connects global research centers The Virtual Room Videoconferencing System (VRVS) project at Caltech-CERN started in July 1997. They developed the VRVS specifically to provide video conferencing for researchers at the Large Hadron Collider Project and scientists in the high-energy and nuclear physics community in the US and Europe. It was so successful that seed funding was provided for phase two, CalREN-2, to improve and expand the VRVS system already in place to extend it to geneticists, physicians and a host of other scientific video conferencing networks around the world. The Cornell University development team released CU-SeeMe v1.0 in 1998. Compatible with both Windows and MacIntosh, this color video version marked a major advance in PC video conferencing. By May of this year, the team has moved on to other projects. In February 1999, MMUSIC introduced the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). The platform showed some advantages over H.323 that users appreciated and soon made it almost as popular. 1999 was a very busy year when NetMeeting v3.0b was released, followed by version three of the ITU standard H.323. Then came the release of iVisit v2.3b5 for Windows and Mac, followed by Media Gateway Control Protocol (MGCP) version 1. In December Microsoft released a service pack for NetMeeting v3.01 (4.4.3388) and an ISO standard MPEG -4 version two has been released. Finally, PSInet was the first company to bring automated H.323 multipoint services to market. As I said, 1999 was a very busy year. SIP entered version 1.30 in November 2000, the same year the H.323 standard reached version 4, and Samsung released its MPEG-4 streaming 3G videophone, the first of its kind. It was a hit, especially in Japan. Quite predictably, Microsoft NetMeeting had to release another service pack for version 3.01. In 2001, Windows XP Messenger announced that it would now support the Session Initiation Protocol. That same year, the world’s first transatlantic telesurgery using video conferencing took place. In this case, video conferencing helped a surgeon in the US use a robot abroad to perform gallbladder surgery on a patient. It was one of the most compelling non-business applications in the history of video conferencing, bringing the technology to the attention of medical professionals and the general public. In October 2001, wartime television reporters began using a handheld satellite and videophone to broadcast live from Afghanistan. It was the first use of video conferencing technology to video chat live with someone in a war zone, putting video conferencing back at the forefront of people’s imaginations. Established in December 2001, the Joint Video Team completed the basic research that led to ITU-T H.264 by December 2002. This protocol standardized video compression technology for both MPEG-4 and ITU-T over a wide range of application areas, making it more versatile than its predecessors. In March 2003, the new technology was ready for industrial launch. New Uses for Videoconferencing Technologies 2003 also saw the growing use of videoconferencing for off-campus classrooms. Interactive classrooms have grown in popularity as streaming video quality has increased and lag has decreased. Companies like VBrick provided various MPEG-4 systems to colleges across the country. Desktop video conferencing is also on the rise and gaining popularity. Companies new to the market are now refining the details of performance on top of the nuts and bolts of the gearbox. In April 2004, Applied Global Technologies developed a voice-activated camera for use in video conferencing that tracks the voice of different speakers to focus on who is speaking during a conference call. In March 2004, Linux announced the release of GnomeMeeting, an H.323-compliant free video conferencing platform that is NetMeeting-compatible. With the constant advances in video conferencing systems, it seems obvious that the technology will evolve and become an integral part of business and personal life. As new advances are made and systems become cheaper, remember that the choice still depends on the network type, system requirements, and your particular conferencing needs. This article on the “History of Videoconferencing” is reprinted with permission.

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