We recently had a lot of fun out in the wilds of Nevada launching (and then following) a weather balloon as it ascended through the atmosphere to an incredible 106,000 feet – roughly three times the height of commercial air traffic – all to see how well an iPad could maintain a Skype video call. Starting with WiFi on the ground, the call quickly switched to a cellular connection, and then finally to a satellite link without skipping a beat.

But that got us thinking… video conferencing technology has been around for a long time. More than 50 years in various commercial applications, in fact. But we haven’t stopped to appreciate how a confluence of advances has helped to reduce the cost, improve the technology and interoperability, shrink the size of equipment and radically improve both video and audio quality. And with powerful AR/VR technology on the cusp of making video conferencing even more indispensable, we thought it would be fun to take a look back at the history of video conferencing, to appreciate just how far we’ve come.

The Golden Age

We take for granted that we can pick up our smartphones and instantly have a video call with almost anyone, anytime, whether they’re in the same building as us or half way around the world. We have a myriad of apps like Skype, FaceTime, and other productivity and communications platforms that allow us to share screens, send instant messages and use collaboration and editing tools in real time, right on the screen. Video conferencing has become so affordable and commonplace that we hardly give it a second thought, and yet there are many reasons why these tools are so indispensable. In a business environment, for example, video conferencing is far more engaging for participants than a typical audio conference. The ability to see other people on a call helps meetings be more efficient, and particularly for large, physically-dispersed teams, video conferencing has become a life-line that helps keep people better aligned and connected while greatly reducing the need for travel.

Video Conferencing Through the Years: Tage Erlander | NetMotion Software

Tage Erlander, Swedish Prime Minister, using an early videophone. 1969

It all started way back in 1964, sort of…

Although video had been around for many years, the World Fair of 1964 is often cited as a huge milestone for video conferencing. This is where AT&T first presented its Picturephone system. As a proof of concept, the Picturephone was an incredible piece of technology, but due to its size, cost and complexity, it was never destined for great sales success. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1980s that video conferencing really started to move from science fiction to the realm of reality. In 1982 Compression Labs began selling a video conferencing solution for $250,000. On top of that eye-watering price, using the system cost an additional $1,000 per hour for the line, putting it within reach of only the deepest-pocketed corporations.

Engineers are the Real Heroes

With the dawn of the 1990s, we saw advancements in IP technology, the Internet and video compression standards. This ushered in an era of desktop-based video collaboration. One example was IBM’s relatively affordable system, which cost $20,000. Another entrant to the market was Apple, which launched an innovative application called CU-See-ME that didn’t offer audio but did make video collaboration possible on Macintosh computers.

These advancements were made possible by rapid innovation in video compression and interoperability standards, allowing video conferencing systems from multiple vendors to work together more seamlessly. Examples include the H.320 protocol, which provided a standard for running multimedia (audio/video/data) over ISDN networks, and the H.261 protocol which provided a standard for video coding at low bit rates (40 kbps to 2 Mbps).

By the mid 2000s, the H.264 standard was created to provide even more efficient encoding, enabling higher quality video at low bit rates, with support for HD video (720p and 1080p) at higher bit rates (2 Mbps and above).

Enterprise Adoption Takes Off

This is around the time when video conferencing really began to make inroads within large global enterprises. Corporations recognized the real cost benefits of reducing travel, increasing collaboration and shortening time-to-market cycles. The widespread availability of WiFi and HD video camera technology in mobile devices such as smartphones and laptops today has helped extend video beyond boardrooms and into the hands of knowledge workers (and the general public).

Other Demand Drivers

Apart from business applications, we should also give a tip-of-the-hat to organizations such as courts, law firms, the military, hospitals and universities, which have invested heavily in video conferencing technologies. From the early days of its expansion, these organizations all saw the enormous potential value of video conferencing, and quickly took it from being a novelty to a necessity. One prime landmark came in 2003 when the first transatlantic “telesurgery” took place. A surgeon in the U.S. was able to successfully control a robot overseas to perform a gall bladder operation. This continues even today, with organizations like the VA, spearheading telehealth applications to improve the lives of veterans. It’s applications like these that will one day help many of us – especially those living in remote areas – to enjoy a better quality of life.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

So, in a nutshell, that’s a very simple overview of how we got to where we are today with video conferencing. The next time you pick up your smartphone, tablet or laptop to join a WebEx meeting or FaceTime call, give a little shout out to all of the people, technologies and advances that came before us to make video conferencing possible.

Is video conferencing the best thing since sliced bread? Almost. However, that’s not to say that it doesn’t have room for improvement, or that we don’t sometimes have a love-hate relationship with it, particularly in a business setting when things just don’t go the way we had planned. In fact, in an age where businesses are becoming laser-focused on user experience, Unified Communications in general remains an enormous source of frustration for many users – maybe even you!

But for that topic, you’ll have to stay tuned.

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