A not-so-clear view of the future: Public gives mixed response to British Telecom's new videophone

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The Independent Online
BRITISH TELECOM'S new videophone has produced a mixture of fascination and embarrassment this week from those who have had a chance to play with it.

The public had its first taste of a technology foreseen by science fiction at the Ideal Home Exhibition yesterday. Martin Megarry, product manager for the BT videophone, is 'delighted' with the reception it has received, and said initial sales were higher than expected, although small in number.

The Relate 2000 videophone plugs into an ordinary telephone socket and uses mains electricity. It is fairly straight-forward to use, transmitting pictures along with speech over conventional analogue telephone lines. The colour pictures appear on a 7.5cm liquid-crystal display. If the screen were any larger the picture quality would suffer.

Producing videophones for as little as pounds 749 a pair is a technically demanding process. The quality of the image is, therefore, surprisingly good. But it is perhaps not yet clear enough to convince the public that videophones are more than a gimmick.

'If that's the quality of the picture, then I'm not interested,' one mother said at a recent demonstration.

The unit converts the camera image into digital code, and sends it down the telephone line on top of an audio signal. The videophone at the other end converts this fluctuating signal back into digital code to display moving pictures.

Movement appears jerky and blurred because videophones transmit only between five and eight images per second. Television pictures are sent out at a rate of between 25 and 30 pictures a second. The speech also sounds a little unnatural because existing telephone lines cannot carry enough data to produce both good quality sound and colour pictures. The picture and speech tend to get out of synch, although Dr Megarry says the image should not lag the speech by more than about a tenth of a second.

Industry watchers are surprised that BT has gone ahead with launching its videophone before advances in digital technology which will allow pictures of far higher quality. The first is the spread of digital telephone links to domestic subscribers. The second is advances in data compression for video images. Both should develop significantly during the next year. Dr Megarry said people should see buying a videophone as they might if they were buying their first, cheap camera: 'It's an affordable first step.' He anticipates that people will want a videophone to 'stay in touch with people they care about'. Videophones present new ground for telecommunications regulators, although sending obscene pictures is illegal under the Telecommunications Act 1984, just as it is illegal to send obsene words. The Independent Committee for the Supervision of Telephone Information Services, which monitors 'adult' telephone chatlines, has proposed a ban on videophones for 'live conversation and sexual services'. The committee wants to pre-empt use of the technology to provide 'unacceptable images'.

Rachel Ashworth, of the National Communications Union yesterday told the Women's TUC annual conference in Blackpool that live sex shows were already being planned by operators by using the new phones.

BT said it would 'cut off immediately' any attempts by 0898 phone operators to use its new videophones for live sex shows.

A spokesman said BT would be 'appalled if these machines were used for this type of purpose'.

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