The History of Video Conferencing – Moving Ahead at the Speed of Video
By Lucy P. Roberts
No new technology develops smoothly, and video conferencing had more than its
share of bumps along the way before becoming the widely used communications
staple it is today. The history of video conferencing in its earliest form goes
back to the 1960’s, when AT&T introduced the Picturephone at the World’s Fair in
New York. While viewed as a fascinating curiosity, it never became popular and
was too expensive to be practical for most consumers when it was offered for
$160 a month in 1970.
Commercial use of real video conferencing was first realized with Ericsson’s
demonstration of the first trans-Atlantic LME video telephone call. Soon other
companies began refining video conferencing technologies, including such
advancements as network video protocol (NVP) in 1976 and packet video protocol (PVP)
in 1981. None of these were put into commercial use, however, and stayed in the
laboratory or private company use.
In 1976, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone established video conferencing (VC)
between Tokyo and Osaka for company use. IBM Japan followed suit in 1982 by
establishing VC running at 48000bps to link up with already established internal
IBM video conferencing links in the United States so that they could have weekly
The 1980’s introduce commercial video conferencing
In 1982, Compression Labs introduces their VC system to the world for
$250,000 with lines for $1,000 an hour. The system was huge and used enormous
resources capable of tripping 15 amp circuit breakers. It was, however, the only
working VC system available until PictureTel’s VC hit the market in 1986 with
their substantially cheaper $80,000 system with $100 per hour lines.
In the time in between these two commercially offered systems, there were
other video conferencing systems developed that were never offered commercially.
The history of video conferencing isn’t complete without mentioning these
systems that were either prototypes or systems developed specifically for
in-house use by a variety of corporations or organizations, including the
military. Around 1984, Datapoint was using the Datapoint MINX system on their
Texas campus, and had provided the system to the military.
In the late 1980’s, Mitsubishi began selling a still-picture phone that was
basically a flop in the market place. They dropped the line two years after
introducing it. In 1991, the first PC based video conferencing system was
introduced by IBM – PicTel. It was a black and white system using what was at
the time an incredibly inexpensive $30 per hour for the lines, while the system
itself was $20,000. In June of the same year, DARTnet had successfully connected
a transcontinental IP network of over a dozen research sites in the United
States and Great Britain using T1 trunks. Today, DARTnet has evolved into the
CAIRN system, which connects dozens of institutions.
CU-SeeMe revolutionizes video conferencing
One of the most famous systems in the history of video conferencing was the
CU-SeeMe developed for the MacIntosh system in 1992. Although the first version
didn’t have audio, it was the best video system developed to that point. By
1993, the MAC program had multipoint capability, and in 1994, CU-SeeMe MAC was
true video conferencing with audio. Recognizing the limitations of MAC
compatibility in a Windows world, developers worked diligently to roll out the
April 1994 CU-SeeME for Windows (no audio), followed closely by the audio
version, CU-SeeMe v0.66b1 for Windows in August of 1995.
In 1992, AT&T rolled out their own $1,500 video phone for the home market. It
was a borderline success. That same year, the world’s first MBone audio/video
broadcast took place and in July INRIA’s video conferencing system was
introduced. This is the year that saw the first real explosion in video
conferencing for businesses around the globe and eventually led to the standards
developed by the ITU.
International Telecommunications Union develops coding standards
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) began developing standards
for video conferencing coding in 1996, when they established Standard H.263 to
reduce bandwidth for transmission for low bit rate communication. Other
standards were developed, including H.323 for packet-based multi-media
communications. These are a variety of other telecommunications standards were
revised and updated in 1998. In 1999, Standard MPEG-4 was developed by the
Moving Picture Experts Group as an ISO standard for multimedia content.
In 1993, VocalChat Novell IPX networks introduced their video conferencing
system, but it was doomed from the start and didn’t last. Microsoft finally came
on board the video conferencing bandwagon with NetMeeting, a descendent of
PictureTel’s Liveshare Plus, in August of 1996 (although it didn’t have video in
this release). By December of the same year, Microsoft NetMeeting v2.0b2 with
video had been released. That same month, VocalTec’s Internet Phone v4.0 for
Windows was introduced.
VRVS links global research centers
The Virtual Room Videoconferencing System (VRVS) project at Caltech-CERN
kicked off in July of 1997. They developed the VRVS specifically to provide
video conferencing to researchers on the Large Hadron Collider Project and
scientists in the High Energy and Nuclear Physics Community in the U.S. and
Europe. It has been so successful that seed money has been allotted for phase
two, CalREN-2, to improve and expand on the already in-place VRVS system in
order to expand it to encompass geneticists, doctors, and a host of other
scientists in the video conferencing network around the world.
Cornell University’s development team released CU-SeeMe v1.0 in 1998. This
color video version was compatible with both Windows and MacIntosh, and huge
step forward in pc video conferencing. By May of that year, the team has moved
on to other projects.
In February of 1999, Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) was launched by MMUSIC.
The platform showed some advantages over H.323 that user appreciated and soon
made it almost as popular. 1999 was a very busy year, with NetMeeting v3.0b
coming out, followed quickly by version three of the ITU standard H.323. Then
came the release of iVisit v2.3b5 for both Windows and Mac, followed by Media
Gateway Control Protocol (MGCP), version 1. In December, Microsoft released a
service pack for NetMeeting v3.01 (4.4.3388) and an ISO standard MPEG-4 version
two was released. Finally, PSInet was the first company to launch H.323
automated multipoint services. Like we said, 1999 was a very busy year.
SIP entered version 1.30 in November of 2000, the same year that standard
H.323 hit version 4, and Samsung released their MPEG-4 streaming 3G video cell
phone, the first of its kind. It was a hit, particularly in Japan. Rather
predictably, Microsoft NetMeeting had to release another service pack for
In 2001, Windows XP messenger announced that it would now support Session
Initiation Protocol. This was the same year the world’s first transatlantic tele-surgery
took place utilizing video conferencing. In this instance, video conferencing
was instrumental in allowing a surgeon in the U.S. to use a robot overseas to
perform gall bladder surgery on a patient. It was one of the most compelling
non-business uses in the history of video conferencing, and brought the
technology to the attention of the medical profession and the general public.
In October of 2001, television reporters began using a portable satellite and
a videophone to broadcast live from Afghanistan during the war. It was the first
use of video conferencing technology to converse live with video with someone in
a war zone, again bringing video conferencing to the forefront of people’s
Founded in December of 2001, the Joint Video Team completed basic research
leading to ITU-T H.264 by December of 2002. This protocol standardized video
compression technology for both MPEG-4 and ITU-T over a broad range of
application areas, making it more versatile than its predecessors. In March of
2003, the new technology was ready for launch to the industry.
New uses for video conferencing technologies
2003 also saw the rise in use of video conferencing for off-campus
classrooms. Interactive classrooms became more popular as the quality of
streaming video increased and the delay decreased. Companies such as VBrick
provided various MPEG-4 systems to colleges across the country. Desktop video
conferencing is also on the rise and gaining popularity.
Companies newer to the market are now refining the details of performance in
addition to the nuts and bolts of transmission. In April of 2004, Applied Global
Technologies developed a voice-activated camera for use in video conferencing
that tracks the voice of various speakers in order to focus on whoever is
speaking during a conference call. In March 2004, Linux announced the release of
GnomeMeeting, an H.323 compliant, free video conferencing platform that is
With the constant advances in video conferencing systems, it seems obvious
that the technology will continue to evolve and become an integral part of
business and personal life. As new advances are made and systems become more
reasonably priced, keep in mind that choices are still determined by network
type, system requirements and what your particular conferencing needs are.
This article on the "The History of Video Conferencing" reprinted with
Copyright © 2004 Evaluseek Publishing.
About the Author
Lori Wilkerson is a full-time freelance writer who loves her job because it
gives her the opportunity to learn more about the world every day. Right now,
she knows a little bit about almost everything, and a lot about
video conference facility, and which
videoconferencing conferencing solution is best for small groups. She has two dogs who are spoiled
and one teenager who is not. She does her video conferencing in pink bunny
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