If You Build It, They Will Videophone

Monday February 8, 2010 – Stewart Wolpin

Avatar‘s success is stoking 3D HDTV excitement, but another, more profound technological and sociological change is about to engulf the living room: the videophone.

Yes, futurists have been prognosticating ubiquitous videophones since, well, since futurists have been prognosticating; in 1964, the Bell System actually initiated a short-lived video telephone service between New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, and Dr. Heywood Floyd famously called his daughter on a space station pay video phone in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But all videophone efforts, either via standalone phones or TV add-ons, have necessitated the purchase of two phones (it takes two to video chat), and a iPhone-like consumer crush to buy a pair and create a critical mass of videophoning households.

Why hasn’t widespread videophoning happened? It’s been postulated that phone chatters simply wanted to be heard and not seen. But this assertion is belied by the popularity of PC-based video chatting. It’s hard to find either a laptop or desktop PC without a built-in Web cam; it’s this “if you build it, they will call” that is the secret to video telephony outside the office.

Skype is supplying this Phone of Dreams solution. A slew of net-enabled models from LG and Panasonic due later this spring will include Skype-powered high-definition videophone capabilities built-in.

Consumers initially will have to buy an LG- or Panasonic-specific webcam, each of which will have four built-in microphones, probably for around $100. But everyone acknowledges these add-on Webcams are a temporary situation. By the fall, it’s likely a number of high-end HDTVs will include a webcam and microphone array built into the bezel, just like on PCs. Toshiba’s CELL TV, for instance, will include a built-in webcam for videophoning, presumably using Skype, although the company has yet to officially say so.

Within a few years, it’s likely all Web-connected HDTVs will include a built-in webcam for videophoning. And as people grow used to videophoning, landline phone makers, seeking any way to boost sagging sales, will launch Skype-powered video phones for other rooms in the house, and LTE-powered cellphones will include forward-facing cameras to enable video calls.

Within a decade, everyone could have videophones in each room of the house, and enable a whole new way of looking – literally – at phone sex.