See you later

The material world
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Launched with much fanfare in 1993, the BT "Relate 2000" videophone was not the first of its type. The Americans and the Japanese got in first with the chance to see their lips move while speaking on the telephone.

The trouble with the videophone is that it is neither one thing nor another. A "pure" invention is appreciated for its novelty, but a hybrid invention - one that puts together existing technologies in new combinations - faces a rougher ride. Telephone and television, though respectively crackly and black-and-white at first, were marvels of their day. With their fusion, we have no patience for such teething troubles.

Improvements are sorely needed. Users, who pay pounds 750 for a brace (since one is next to useless) are presently advised not to move their heads around too much which rather seems to beat the point of video. A freeze- frame facility merely underlines the inadequacy.

Don't forget your lipstick

Who needs or wants a videophone? BT seem unsure themselves. An information sheet offers tips to girls on calling their boyfriends: "No more guessing what you're wearing - he'll be able to see!" it squeaked. The advice was to put on garish clothes - at least on your top half - and make-up in order to produce a clear image.

Much of the fascination with video telephony stems from the fact that it is one of those inventions - like flight or time travel - that was imagined before it became reality. (Of course, with time travel, we're still waiting.) Ironically, it was its inventor who spilled the beans. When, in March 1876, Alexander Graham Bell made the very first successful phone call to his long-suffering assistant, Thomas Watson, he blurted: "Come here, Watson. I want to see you."

This was no problem. Watson was only a couple of rooms away at the time. But it was a poor start to selling the benefits of an audio communication device.

Why has it taken so long?

One of the earliest pre-visions of video telephony occurs in Robert Greene's Elizabethan play, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay which portrays Roger Bacon, a real-life 13th century monk and experimental scientist, as able to show Edward, Prince of Wales (the son of Henry III) what is happening at a chosen remote location through "a glass prospective".

But it was in the 19th century that the need for such a technology became widely felt. No sooner was Bell's telephone invented than people were imagining its extension. The French illustrator, Albert Robida, imagined a telephonoscope that would dominate human communications for the next 100 years and more.

Du Maurier captioned an 1879 Punch cartoon with the words: "Every evening, before going to bed, Pater- and Materfamilias set up an electric camera obscura over their bedroom mantelpiece, and gladden their eyes with the sight of their Children at the Antipodes, and converse gaily with them through the wire." Later, the videophone crops up in HG Wells's story "When the sleeper wakes", and is taken for granted in science fiction.

The fact that the videophone was foreseen exposes that old lie that necessity is the mother of invention. True, some inventions were widely imagined in advance, like powered flight. But others - the Walkman, the wheel and Pop Tarts - were not. And even though a dream be widely shared, it is sometimes better that it remain a dream