Leading Article: Seen as well as heard

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WHEN THE gramophone was invented, the reaction was not: 'What a miserable, squeezed, tinny sound] It bears no resemblance to the real thing. And you can only get a few minutes of music on each side of the record. Not for me]' Nor, when television sets became available, did people complain that they were in black and white rather than colour. Far from it. Each of these inventions was seen as an exciting step forward.

So too, despite the sceptics, it may well be with the video-telephone launched yesterday by BT. True, the picture transmitted is far from perfect and the voice quality suffers from being squeezed down the same ordinary telephone line. Movements appear as a series of jerks and blurs; and there is a timelag between voice and picture. True too, that not everyone will welcome the prospect of being visible to their interlocutor. Some may wish to dash to a mirror before answering the phone. Others may have good reason to believe that they communicate better as a disembodied voice.

The solution is simple: there is no obligation to press the viewing button. If you have just emerged from a shower, hair dripping, you can preserve your secrets. The only danger in such reticence is that the caller may wonder what you have to hide.

These considerations are likely to be overshadowed by the many potential pleasures. Anyone with a family member or close friend too far away to be visited will be able to have face-to-face conversations with them. Families will be able to gather around, taking advantage of the loudspeaker facility, and communicate visually as well as verbally with a distant member. Lovers will be able to make eyes at each other.

Inevitably, there are fears that the machines will be used to transmit pornographic images. Although the relevant watchdog body has proposed a ban on their use for 'live conversation and sexual services' on chat lines, it is hard to see how anything more than advertisements can be monitored.

In the last analysis, the video-telephone is a toy, albeit one that adds a new dimension to communication. There are those who believe it has been launched prematurely and without proper market research. But then they said that about Sony's Walkman.