The history of conference calling originated by brilliant minds at Bell Labs. They conceived of a 2-way video/audio call system which led to the invention of the Picturephone in 1956. At the time, the device consisted of a small black-and-white screen connected to a telephone requiring up to three phone lines to handle the packet traffic. Nine years later (in 1964) at New York’s World Fair AT&T demonstrated the first commercial use connecting calls between NYC to Disneyland (Anaheim California). By 1970 AT&T introduced a Picturephone based service to enterprise customers for $160/month (~$900 in today’s value) covering equipment use costs and up to 30 mins per call. Additional minutes cost $0.25, or $1.50 in today’s value. You can read the history of Picturephone at the Engineering and Technology History Wiki.
Clearly technology has vastly improved thanks, in large part, to the Internet and IP networks connecting billions of people globally. Business models have evolved greatly as well. Most every collaboration platform from Microsoft Teams, to Zoom, GoToMeeting, Uber Conference, and others have free (limited) tier offers with paid tiers unlocking value added features. What hasn’t changed all that much is the experience.
Today’s virtual meetings are a combination of voice or video chats. It’s a major step forward but the experience Picturephone set out to accomplish has been enhanced, not evolved, yet. While teleconferencing has helped us stay connected with colleagues, partners, and customers it’s not quite the same as in person meetings. And that my friends is about to change.
Spatial computing is gaining momentum as a developer and hardware ecosystem. What was a novelty with early XR devices and software platforms has come a long way. Furthermore the emergence of 5G and edge networks is providing the bandwidth and latency performance needed for completely tether-less capabilities. In a matter of 1–2 years the 2D experiences of today are being re-imagined as XR driven experiences utilizing the space around us to interact with data and people. Niclas Johansson wrote a fantastic guide on the future of virtual meetings that I encourage you to look at.
Last week I had a chance to experience virtual meetings with Forest Gibson and Jared Cheshier of PlutoVR. Based in Seattle, the PlutoVR team originated their journey as an in-game collaboration experience for Steam evolving their platform now to become a communications platform. Pluto’s purpose is to help humanity transcend physical location, so that people can connect, communicate, and collaborate as if they are in person, regardless of where they are. Finally there’s a new way of working that’s immersive, collaborative and memorable. While I wasn’t able to fully immerse into the XR world I did get a chance to peek into it via a Zoom call. Pluto’s latest work allows their spatial communication system to bridge with any video chat provider. Need to share a Word document, sure! Throw it up in the virtual room and watch other attendees interact with the deck real time as if they are in the room. Are you the type that likes to scribble on whiteboards? Go for it! We quickly loaded a whiteboard application and got to scribbling notes in no time.
As Forest mentioned in our meeting, “There are lots of pieces coming together to make this all possible. VR and AR headsets are maturing and becoming more widely adopted. Standards are forming around this new platform like OpenXR from the Khronos Group. Spatial platforms are beginning to support multi-application behavior, allowing for a communication layer like Pluto to run alongside other applications. 5G allows for the low latency and high bandwidth required to provide in-person like spatial experiences, and edge networks can offload rendering making headsets lighter and cheaper. “As all these pieces come together, Pluto will be providing a whole new way to communicate and feel present with others at a distance.”
What’s enticing about the future of collaborative work is that the ecosystem of software, hardware, networks and ISVs/developers is maturing and accelerating as future 5G and edge networks come online. The evidence today proves that meeting collaboration has exhibited impressive efficiency gains when using XR technology in manufacturing, engineering, healthcare, and other industries. In researching the market further, I found that Ori Inbar, Founder and Managing Partner of Super Ventures, did a fantastic job of sharing his perspectives, and enthusiasm, for the potential of the XR market and gains to be realized from it.
50 years ago, the Picturephone provided the vision and technology we depend on today. We’re due for a shift to the next paradigm. And what’s ahead is extremely cool.
Thanks for reading.