BOSTON — Thousands of Americans got what they thought was a look into the future when American Telephone & Telegraph Co. unveiled its Picturephone at the 1964 World's Fair.
The day was not too far away, the phone company promised in a gush of Space Age optimism, when we not only would hear grandma's voice but would see her as well during our weekly phone call.
Twenty-two years later, it's still just a dream.
Booked in Advance
AT&T does offer a picture phone service, but it is available only at special conference rooms set up in hotels. Calls must be booked in advance over special phone lines.
But some inventors have not given up on the idea of a picture phone that would be as easy to use as the telephones in use today. One of them is a young Massachusetts company that hopes its picture phones will someday become as common as businesses' desk-top computers.
"You will be able to do everything you can in an in-person meeting except shake their hand or take them out to lunch," said Thomas J. Spalding, a vice president of PicTel Corp. of Peabody.
PicTel's product, introduced last month, rests on a desk top, as did the 1964 prototype, and uses relatively inexpensive digital phone lines that are being installed around the country. These lines, primarily used for computer data transmission, can be dialed like an ordinary phone call.
A PicTel call costs more than a regular long-distance call but less than the booked-in-advance calls. PicTel says its system saves, too, by eliminating the cost of a studio.
Visual Image Compressed
The heart of PicTel's product is a device that compresses the visual image so that it can be transmitted over the relatively limited capacity of the digital phone lines.
PicTel says its method of electronically compressing the video signal is superior to past attempts, which it said caused too much distortion in the picture. "The picture quality is adequate to have a comfortable conversation with somebody," Spalding said.
But the picture is not perfect. A demonstration tape provided by PicTel showed its head-and-shoulders view tends to distort motion because of a delay created by the compression technology. The 1 1/2-year-old company is working to improve the image.
Another company that offers a similar desk-top picture phone service, Widcom of Campbell, Calif., uses a different technology to compress the video signal so that it can be transmitted over the digital phone lines.
Spalding said corporations should find the picture phone attractive because it will cut down on expensive travel time to meetings and make it possible to instantaneously transmit documents and computer screens full of information.
Way People Operate
Despite PicTel's optimism, some communications analysts question the future of picture phones because of the way businesses--and people--operate.
Even giant AT&T gave up on the original Picturephone concept when it found that there weren't enough potential customers to make it profitable.
"A large number of people said, 'Oh gee, I'd hate to have one of those things around when I step out of the shower or have my hair in curlers,' " said AT&T spokesman Burke Stinson.
Businesses were just as wary.
"The companies back in the 1960s felt that while it wasn't a bad idea, how much do I really need to see George when I converse with him to get my point across, and how much am I willing to pay?" Stinson said.
Mary Johnston of the Yankee Group, a Boston market research and consulting firm, added: "Executive-level folks really resist it. They like the face-to-face contact of a meeting."
Can't Have a Drink
Stinson pointed out that many business people believe the interaction with colleagues before and after a meeting is just as important as the meeting itself--you can't have a drink over the phone. AT&T eliminated its own network of teleconference studios last year when business didn't meet projections and entered into an agreement to offer the service at Hilton hotels instead.
Analyst Eric Arnum of International Resource Development in Norwalk, Conn., said picture phones are "poised for a boom."
But another industry analyst, Elliot M. Gold of Altadena, Calif., was less optimistic. "I think the market is 10 years away, at least," he said. "It's going to take a while to bring the price down."
PicTel's basic system, which includes five video phones, costs $150,000.