kw: technology, video chat, telephony
For someone who is considered a power user, I am sometimes well behind the curve. It took my father to propel me into the realm of video chat. I remember one of the first exhibits at Disneyland when it opened in 1955 was a kind of videophone, which would "soon" be "commonplace." Well, "soon" took a little matter of forty more years to begin to happen, and a total of fifty to become easy and cheap enough to be in any danger of being "commonplace."
The first problem was bandwidth. Although analog TV had channels spaced 6 Mhz apart, the video and audio signal combined only needed a third of that. The smaller picture on the Disney videophone probably only needed half a Mhz, but that is still 150 times the bandwidth required to carry decent voice. One video channel could tie up all the bandwidth for an entire town's phone service. Only when the telephone system was capable of carrying DSL signals to most homes was there any chance for analog video telephony to become possible. Digital video with Mpeg compression solved the bandwidth problem a couple decades ago. While it takes a 0.5 Mhz bandwidth to carry HDTV, it only takes a few Khz to carry a 320x240 pixel "personal video" signal. Hobbyists who already had ISDN (twin line data) available cobbled together videophone systems that sent the digital video over one ISDN line and audio over the other.
ISDN wasn't cheap. It cost much more than just having two telephone lines. The cost barrier began to fall when cable TV providers installed 2-way amplifiers and began to offer internet services, and later a handful of companies (I use Verizon) offered fiber optic internet hookups at reasonable cost. "See-U-See-Me" (CuCme) type programs spread, albeit slowly. But the other cost factor was that early web cameras cost $200, dropping below $50 only a few years ago. Now they are cheap enough that nearly every new laptop contains a webcam built in, just above the screen.
The final hurdle was software more usable than CuCme. I've been a (Very) occasional Skype user for a couple of years. I only used it to make conference calls, because I have a mobile phone plan with free calling nationwide, so I don't care that Skype is free. My cell phone has better sound quality.
While I may have heard last year that Skype offered video chatting, I didn't pay attention. But not too long ago I got a new laptop, and it had a camera built in. No built-in microphone, however, but I had one I'd gotten for audio-only Skype. About that time my Dad called. He'd seen his neighbor using Skype video to talk to distant relatives, and wanted to know how to set it up. Adroit timing!
An hour later, we both had it running and had our first video chat. This was just a couple of days ago, the last day of 2010. When I returned to work I told a colleague the story and remarked that I reckon my Dad might be one of the oldest Skype users, at age 88. She said, "My dad uses it, and he is 90." It makes sense that there is probably someone out there age 100 or so, using Skype video chat.
If ninety-year-olds are using a technology, I count it as having gotten over the hump. Whether it is "commonplace" now, it easily can become so. For me, that Disney promise was finally fulfilled, after 55 years. And for anyone who wants to comment and say you've been video chatting for twenty years, that's OK. As I said, I was well behind the curve on this one.