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Why Don't We Have A Picture-Phone Today?

Jeffrey Hauser

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I met my former wife back in New Jersey in 1972. She was working as a secretary in a department filled with brilliant engineers in a place called Holmdel. The huge three-story building with a massive center atrium where she worked sat in the middle of acres of lush tree-lined hills and parks. The company was then known as Bell Laboratories and we called it Bell Labs. It was run by AT & T and had thousands of employees with a massive parking lot just off the parkway. Her particular division was conceived in 1968 and was solely responsible for making and refining one product; the Picture-Phone.

They had a working model on display that anyone could use. In one area, just off the atrium, sat a booth. On the desk was a small box-like device with a camera lens pointing forward, a small screen, and a traditional push-button phone at the base. There were various other buttons for controlling the picture, zoom, sound and even an “off” switch. You sat down and dialed the number that was listed on the front of the apparatus. Another phone, in the conference room down the hallway, would ring. Your partner would then answer and you would be able to see one another on the small 4”square screen. I’m working from memory but I believe that the picture was in color and active. That is, you could see the person in motion as well. And please remember that this was way back in 1972.

I do recall that I was blown away by this simple product. It was the obvious next step in the evolution of the phone. More recently, touch-tone or single-button dialing had been introduced. The rotary dial was on its way out. Princess phones were all the rage as a space-age look and the old black phones were a distant memory. But, the idea that we could now see who was calling was amazing. Some of the earliest discussions of why we would want this feature included:

  • Being able to see your friend or family member from a distant city
  • Grandparents watching their grandchildren that live far away.
  • Being able to view objects for business reasons.
  • Showing a new idea or sketch of a potential idea.
  • Being able to shop for something at a store down the block by viewing the items for sale.
  • Doctors or dentists that could see patients and their conditions while in their own homes.

It’s a lot like using the web-cams of today. But there were a few concerns that plagued the folks at AT & T as well. They included the fact that two people had to buy the product for it to be used. One was of no use by itself. It would be expensive to manufacture and purchase. But believe it or not, that wasn’t the biggest problem. That was a little issue called privacy. In dozens of focus groups, time after time it was mentioned that many people walk around half dressed or in the nude entirely. So, how could they answer the phone like that? They were told that they could just keep the switch to the picture portion turned off and then turn it on at will.

But the people interviewed still had their doubts. What if they forgot to switch it off? What if someone else, like their child, turned it back on? Total strangers could see into their homes. Where was the privacy? This was Big Brother in their living room. Where would it all end? I watched the Picture-Phone department disband a few years later. It was put on the shelf, never to be resurrected. I was a bit disappointed, but understood the logic. We weren’t ready for that type of invasion and it’s a good thing too.

Imagine a society where people could take pictures or videos of any one of us without our knowledge whether it was at the gym, in the mall, or evening a public restroom? Then imagine if they could be broadcast or sent to anyone in the world instantly? Where would that leave us? Thank goodness the Picture-Phone is just a distant memory and our privacy is still secure. Society has come a long way since 1972, haven’t we?

Jeffrey Hauser was a sales consultant for the Bell System Yellow Pages for nearly 25 years. He graduated from Pratt Institute with a BFA in Advertising and has a Master's Degree in teaching. He had his own advertising agency in Scottsdale, Arizona and ran a consulting and design firm, ABC Advertising. He has authored 6 books and a novel, “Pursuit of the Phoenix. " His latest book is, “Inside the Yellow Pages" which can be seen at his website, Currently, he is the Marketing Director for a Health Information and Doctor Referral site.


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