This is what video calls looked like in 1994

Video calls seem like a recent invention but they have been with us for years. However, it was not until the coronavirus pandemic that we were forced to contact family, friends, clients and co-workers through video calls or video conferences. Since then, this method has gained popularity. And more than will have it when it is possible to make video calls through virtual reality.

But if video calls are so easy to make today, it is thanks to the fact that we have broadband connections and that practically any device integrates a camera. Especially smartphones and laptops. But some desktop screens are also beginning to carry them. And in the future, it is likely that televisions will incorporate them as well. Come on, it is difficult to get rid of a video call.

However it was not always so. In the 90s, this technology was beginning to be feasible but it was still unknown to the general public. It was more of an invention that we saw in science fiction movies and series. But that the most advanced companies began to see it as a way to communicate with their offices around the world and with international clients without leaving the country.

Can video calls save…?

This question appeared on the cover of the magazine MacWorld November 1994. Can video calls save time, money and travel? The headline was Desktop Conferencing, desktop conferencing, something that was quite popular in large and medium-sized companies through international phone calls. But listening to the other person is one thing and seeing them is quite another. Would video calls end business trips?

The advantages of what were then called videoconferences were clear. Being in two places at once. However, in the distant 1994 the technology that made it possible was not very economical to say. According to the MacWorld cover story, by Matthew Leeds, the technology needed cost $100,000. And it implied the use of an exclusive room for video meetings and satellite connections. A display of means and money only available to a few. An eccentricity that could serve to look good with customers beyond how practical it was.

But by the end of the 20th century, that was to change. “Better compression, miniaturization, faster processors, and an expanding market” that was growing as fast as the cost of business travel was making video calling cheaper and more affordable for businesses large and small alike. Video calls or, according to the article, desktop videoconferencing, for its acronym DVC.

Credit: Old Crap

The first steps are difficult

However, while the technology was already there, it was not yet fully implemented. The article analyzes four examples of video calling systems compatible with the Macs of the time. To put some context, in 1994 the organization known as W3C was born. In the world there are 10,000 web pages and two million computers connected to the Internet. Most in universities and research centers. That year, companies like Amazon or Yahoo! The flagship browser was Mosaic and its replacement, Netscape Navigator, had just been launched. And the Internet connections were made through the telephone line. In the United States, through companies like AOL or Compuserve.

By 1994, IBM personal computers were becoming an industry standard. And Intel processors were beginning to be used. As an operating system, MS-DOS reigned with the permission of Windows 3.11. Standard RAM memory was 4 MB, screens were 14-inch, and data moved on floppy disks. Although that year the first CDs began to be seen. As for Apple, in 1994 PowerPC processors began to be used in the Macintosh and the new line of Power Macintosh computers was launched. It joined the previous ranges: PowerBook for laptops, Performa for desktops and Newton-named PDAs.

Going back to the MacWorld article, to test the video calls they used a conventional analog line but also ISDN, known in Spanish by the acronym XDSI. It was the digital version of the copper telephone network and facilitated multiple connections through the same line, which allowed people to talk on the phone, connect to the Internet and/or make a video call. It goes without saying that this technology was very limited by its cost and little implementation. It offered two 64 Kbps channels for data and/or voice and a third 16 Kbps channel for control signals.

The first webcam for video calls on PCCredit: eBay

What were the video calls of the 90s like?

The four video calling systems discussed in the MacWorld article had the advantage of being installed on a computer at the time. Unlike previous systems that required a specific technical display that you had to place in a meeting room. Thus, if you had a computer, it was enough to connect the camera provided by the provider of the video call system and install the necessary software.

To make the connections, a regular phone call was made. Or Ethernet connections were used if the connection was within the office itself. No nicknames, users or accounts. And as noteworthy functions, you could take screenshots of the video call, in frame or still image format, as well as send and/or receive files and have a shared virtual whiteboard on which to write or draw. You could also share a desk, count the time of the meeting or record video and/or audio.

Prices for the four systems discussed in the 1994 article ranged from $1,499 for Compression Labs’ Cameo Personal Video System for Ethernet (ISDN version was $2,500) to $5,899 for NUTS Technologies’ Connect 918. Obviously, we are talking about a technology focused on companies. The home user would hardly use video calls if it implied that expense and, furthermore, the fact that few people had this technology at hand.

Too soon to raise a toast

Poor image and audio quality. And the difficulty of using all the features of video calls at the same time. The main problem with this technology was in the connections at the time. The phone line was not capable of transmitting video at high speed. And much less season it with sending data with files, screen sharing, etc. In other words, the glass ceiling for video calls to become popular was in the precarious digital communications of that time.

To put it in context, let’s see what bandwidth we need today. Skype, Microsoft’s app for home video calls, asks for between 30 and 100 kbps for voice calls. The telephone connections of 1994 moved between 14.4 and 33.6 kbps. For video calls and/or screen sharing, Skype asks for between 128 and 300 kbps. Speeds that did not even reach the ISDN of the time.

Video calls had to wait for improvements in image compression and, especially, for the arrival of faster connections. First, ADSL, which allowed connections between 128 kbps and 8 Mbps. They even offered 20 and 50 Mbps. But the big change would come with fiber optics, which today allows us to have connections of no less than 100 Mbps.

The end of the November 1994 MacWorld article on PC video calling isn’t very rosy. Yes, it starts from an optimistic premise, that of a lower cost to make video calls and the possibility of doing so through a computer and by telephone line. On the contrary, precisely at the limits of that telephone line, the video and audio quality were not the most recommendable. In addition, more user-friendly proposals such as Skype would have to arrive. Or the inclusion of web cameras in practically any computer for sale.

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