The First 'Picturephone' for Video Chatting Was a Colossal Failure

Bell Labs started selling commercial image and phone service in 1970, but it was too expensive—and a little too intimate.

Lady Bird Johnson makes a call on a 1964 model of the Picture-Phone (White House Photograph Office)

Bell Labs was right about so many aspects of video chatting.

They were right that it would a little bit awkward. That it'd provide "an enhanced feeling of proximity and intimacy." That people would use it as a way to get out of tiresome business trip. That, someday, really, we'd all use it.

They were just wrong about how much anyone would be willing to pay for it.

In 2014, video chatting is one of the clearest "hey-it-really-is-the-future" features of day-to-day life. But it was first commercially available 44 years ago, when Bell Labs debuted the private "picturephone" in Pittsburgh in 1970:

This was the first time a major communications provider was offering companies video phone capability. Bell Labs had been working on the project for years at that point: It first let the public use an earlier version of the picturephone at the 1964 World's Fair, in New York, where attendees could chat with someone out in California, at Disneyland of course. That same year, Bell Labs set up public picturephone booths in New York, Chicago, and D.C. You could make a three-minute call halfway across the country, from New York to Chicago, for $27.

That's about $200 today, and it was a little too pricey for an experience that most people found a bit unnerving. People were also, the executive VP of Bell Labs wrote in 1969, "very much concerned how they will appear on the screen of the called party." (There was no tiny picture in the corner for them to check out and adjust to the most flattering angle.) But, still, the company was convinced that businesses would buy the service. In trials, executives even said they would pay "more than $50 monthly for Picturephone service designed to meet their needs."

But when Bell Labs started up the service, they charged much more—in Chicago, $75 per month and in Pittsburgh, $160, with only 30 minutes free before additional charges kicked in. AT&T execs had projected that by 1980 the company would have a million picturephone sets out in the world. But only handful of companies bought in, and within a few years the service was shut down.

There was one other thing that Bell Labs didn't get quite right—besides the price. While the inventors of the picturephone noticed that they were delivering an intimate experience, they didn't really realize what that meant. They concluded that the service failed because "it wasn't entirely clear that people wanted to be seen on a telephone."

But that's not quite right. What wasn't entirely clear was that people wanted to be seen on a telephone by their colleagues. Friends and family are a different beast. Video chatting didn't really take until people started using it with people who they actually felt close to. Those sugar-sweet iPhone5 commercial were on the right track; so was Google when it encouraged us to just hang out. A three-minute, $200 video conference call sounds terrible. Having your long-distance loved one just chilling with you on the couch for a while is great.