The History of Video Conferencing ? Moving Ahead at the Speed of Video

No new technology develops smoothly, and video conferencing had more than its share of bumps along the way before becoming the widely used communications staple it is today. The history of video conferencing in its earliest form goes back to the 1960's, when AT&T introduced the Picturephone at the World's Fair in New York. While viewed as a fascinating curiosity, it never became popular and was too expensive to be practical for most consumers when it was offered for $160 a month in 1970.

Commercial use of real video conferencing was first realized with Ericsson's demonstration of the first trans-Atlantic LME video telephone call. Soon other companies began refining video conferencing technologies, including such advancements as network video protocol (NVP) in 1976 and packet video protocol (PVP) in 1981. None of these were put into commercial use, however, and stayed in the laboratory or private company use.

In 1976, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone established video conferencing (VC) between Tokyo and Osaka for company use. IBM Japan followed suit in 1982 by establishing VC running at 48000bps to link up with already established internal IBM video conferencing links in the United States so that they could have weekly meetings.

The 1980's introduce commercial video conferencing

In 1982, Compression Labs introduces their VC system to the world for $250,000 with lines for $1,000 an hour. The system was huge and used enormous resources capable of tripping 15 amp circuit breakers. It was, however, the only working VC system available until PictureTel's VC hit the market in 1986 with their substantially cheaper $80,000 system with $100 per hour lines.

In the time in between these two commercially offered systems, there were other video conferencing systems developed that were never offered commercially. The history of video conferencing isn't complete without mentioning these systems that were either prototypes or systems developed specifically for in-house use by a variety of corporations or organizations, including the military. Around 1984, Datapoint was using the Datapoint MINX system on their Texas campus, and had provided the system to the military.

In the late 1980's, Mitsubishi began selling a still-picture phone that was basically a flop in the market place. They dropped the line two years after introducing it. In 1991, the first PC based video conferencing system was introduced by IBM ? PicTel. It was a black and white system using what was at the time an incredibly inexpensive $30 per hour for the lines, while the system itself was $20,000. In June of the same year, DARTnet had successfully connected a transcontinental IP network of over a dozen research sites in the United States and Great Britain using T1 trunks. Today, DARTnet has evolved into the CAIRN system, which connects dozens of institutions.

CU-SeeMe revolutionizes video conferencing

One of the most famous systems in the history of video conferencing was the CU-SeeMe developed for the MacIntosh system in 1992. Although the first version didn't have audio, it was the best video system developed to that point. By 1993, the MAC program had multipoint capability, and in 1994, CU-SeeMe MAC was true video conferencing with audio. Recognizing the limitations of MAC compatibility in a Windows world, developers worked diligently to roll out the April 1994 CU-SeeME for Windows (no audio), followed closely by the audio version, CU-SeeMe v0.66b1 for Windows in August of 1995.

In 1992, AT&T rolled out their own $1,500 video phone for the home market. It was a borderline success. That same year, the world's first MBone audio/video broadcast took place and in July INRIA's video conferencing system was introduced. This is the year that saw the first real explosion in video conferencing for businesses around the globe and eventually led to the standards developed by the ITU.

International Telecommunications Union develops coding standards

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) began developing standards for video conferencing coding in 1996, when they established Standard H.263 to reduce bandwidth for transmission for low bit rate communication. Other standards were developed, including H.323 for packet-based multi-media communications. These are a variety of other telecommunications standards were revised and updated in 1998. In 1999, Standard MPEG-4 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. Microsoft finally came on board the video conferencing bandwagon with NetMeeting, a descendent of PictureTel's Liveshare Plus, in August of 1996 (although it didn't have video in this release). By December of the same year, Microsoft NetMeeting v2.0b2 with video had been released. That same month, VocalTec's Internet Phone v4.0 for Windows was introduced.

VRVS links global research centers

The Virtual Room Videoconferencing System (VRVS) project at Caltech-CERN kicked off in July of 1997. They developed the VRVS specifically to provide video conferencing to researchers on the Large Hadron Collider Project and scientists in the High Energy and Nuclear Physics Community in the U.S. and Europe. It has been so successful that seed money has been allotted for phase two, CalREN-2, to improve and expand on the already in-place VRVS system in order to expand it to encompass geneticists, doctors, and a host of other scientists in the video conferencing network around the world.

Cornell University's development team released CU-SeeMe v1.0 in 1998. This color video version was compatible with both Windows and MacIntosh, and huge step forward in pc video conferencing. By May of that year, the team has moved on to other projects.

In February of 1999, Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) was launched by MMUSIC. The platform showed some advantages over H.323 that user appreciated and soon made it almost as popular. 1999 was a very busy year, with NetMeeting v3.0b coming out, followed quickly by version three of the ITU standard H.323. Then came the release of iVisit v2.3b5 for both 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 was released. Finally, PSInet was the first company to launch H.323 automated multipoint services. Like we said, 1999 was a very busy year.

SIP entered version 1.30 in November of 2000, the same year that standard H.323 hit version 4, and Samsung released their MPEG-4 streaming 3G video cell phone, the first of its kind. It was a hit, particularly in Japan. Rather predictably, Microsoft NetMeeting had to release another service pack for version 3.01.

In 2001, Windows XP messenger announced that it would now support Session Initiation Protocol. This was the same year the world's first transatlantic tele-surgery took place utilizing video conferencing. In this instance, video conferencing was instrumental in allowing a surgeon in the U.S. to use a robot overseas to perform gall bladder surgery on a patient. It was one of the most compelling non-business uses in the history of video conferencing, and brought the technology to the attention of the medical profession and the general public.

In October of 2001, television reporters began using a portable satellite and a videophone to broadcast live from Afghanistan during the war. It was the first use of video conferencing technology to converse live with video with someone in a war zone, again bringing video conferencing to the forefront of people's imaginations.

Founded in December of 2001, the Joint Video Team completed basic research leading to ITU-T H.264 by December of 2002. This protocol standardized video compression technology for both MPEG-4 and ITU-T over a broad range of application areas, making it more versatile than its predecessors. In March of 2003, the new technology was ready for launch to the industry.

New uses for video conferencing technologies

2003 also saw the rise in use of video conferencing for off-campus classrooms. Interactive classrooms became more popular as the quality of streaming video increased and the delay decreased. Companies such as VBrick provided various MPEG-4 systems to colleges across the country. Desktop video conferencing is also on the rise and gaining popularity.

Companies newer to the market are now refining the details of performance in addition to the nuts and bolts of transmission. In April of 2004, Applied Global Technologies developed a voice-activated camera for use in video conferencing that tracks the voice of various speakers in order to focus on whoever 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 continue to evolve and become an integral part of business and personal life. As new advances are made and systems become more reasonably priced, keep in mind that choices are still determined by network type, system requirements and what your particular conferencing needs are.

This article on the "The History of Video Conferencing" reprinted with permission.
Copyright © 2004 Evaluseek Publishing.

About the Author
Lori Wilkerson is a full-time freelance writer who loves her job because it gives her the opportunity to learn more about the world every day. Right now, she knows a little bit about almost everything, and a lot about video conferencing, renting a video conference facility, and which videoconferencing conferencing solution is best for small groups. She has two dogs who are spoiled and one teenager who is not. She does her video conferencing in pink bunny slippers.

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