- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2003

AT&T; wowed the world with the Picturephone at 1964’s World’s Fair in New York City. That Picturephone may have sunk without a trace, but companies are gambling that people still want to see who’s on the other end of the phone line.

Today, a variety of videophone-type devices can be had, from the land-line-based Beamer to cellular phones that record and transmit snippets of video footage. The initial results may be crude, but improving technology could iron out the wrinkles in these modern devices.

A version of videophone services also exists via the Internet, where computer users can have visual chats using cameras hooked up to their systems from such Web vendors as www.cuworld.com. These chats don’t allow for the kind of instant dialogue we’re used to with standard telephones, and they require two computers with the requisite cameras and software systems.

Fremont, Calif.-based Vialta offers a device that most closely resembles what we think of when the term videophone comes up. Vialta debuted its device, dubbed the Beamer, last August.

The Beamer features color video streams displayed on a 3.5-inch LCD screen. The images are captured by a built-in camera with a 30-degree range of motion, allowing for modest changes to the point of view.

Ken Tenaglia, Vialta’s director of marketing, says videophones haven’t caught on up to this point for several reasons.

Price has been a prohibitive factor, but so, too, has video quality, Mr. Tenaglia says.

Beamer owners don’t have to buy any special equipment other than the unit — which costs $500 for two units — or pay any fees to use the product. Adding the Beamer to one’s home phone system takes but minutes, he says.

Beamer users can decide when — and if — to engage the video portion of the device by hitting a button.

The video quality, alas, is imperfect.

“It’s not like watching a DVD movie,” Mr. Tenaglia says. “The person you’re talking to looks like they’re supposed to. … You can recognize them very clearly.”

The Beamer works by taking the audio and video streams and compressing them. The streams are sent via the phone lines to the other Beamer, which decompresses and displays the video images.

Ray Liu, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Maryland at College Park, cautions that the limitations of phone lines make videophones a risky proposition.

“The [limited] amount of data that can be passed along them will keep videophones from showing clear images,” Mr. Liu says.

Phone lines were created to transmit voice data back and forth, not such data-dense material as video imagery.

Mobile phones don’t have the benefit of phone lines, but they, too, are inching their way toward the potential of video conversations.

Brian Zidar, a spokesman for T-Mobile USA, based in Bellevue, Wash., says a Nokia 3650 phone can record and send color video messages, including sound. The phone, which retails for less than $200 after a rebate, lets customers record up to 10 seconds of action, then send it via e-mail to a person’s computer or to a T-Mobile member with the same phone.

This Nokia model, which can display 4,000 colors on its nearly 2-inch screen, also can take photographs and send them to any e-mail address.

“This is not intended to be a replacement for digital cameras,” Mr. Zidar says. “It’s for capturing the spontaneous moments.”

Sprint spokeswoman Lisa Ihde says consumers can sign up for her company’s picture mail service for $15 a month.

Several of Sprint’s phone models allow users to snap pictures, which are then sent to a Web site where they are stored, Ms. Ihde says. Then, others can access the photos either through their home computers or their phones, should the latter have Web access and a video screen.

The pictures are stored on the Internet site, not on the phone, she says. The images are saved for 30 days.

Chris Ambrosio, director of wireless device strategies with Boston-based Strategy Analytics, says wireless video data “can travel over the airwaves and go into the public Internet and get formatted as an e-mail attachment, or it can end up [going] right to someone else’s handset as an MMS message.”

The multimedia messaging service (MMS) format is the current standard by which various computers identify data streaming back and forth. It allows for both audio and video data to be sent between computers, cellular phones and other electronic devices.

Japan and Korea have more advanced formats available for data transmission, says Mr. Ambrosio, whose company provides analysis on a number of issues, including communication and broadband technologies.

The limitations of the American system won’t last long, he predicts.

John Johnson, regional spokesman for Verizon Wireless, says current videophones need to come a long way to resemble the video we’re used to seeing.

“When most people think of video, they think of what they see in their living rooms,” Mr. Johnson says. “That is running at 30 frames per second.”

“When you try to transmit video signals over the land lines, cable or wireless technology, you need large bandwidth to carry that much information,” Mr. Johnson says.

“As you step down in resolution — the frames per second — the motion begins to look not quite as smooth,” he says.

Current wireless systems, like their land-line counterparts, don’t allow for the kind of bandwidth to allow clear video streams. The Beamer, for instance, allows up to 15 frames per second to be transmitted, depending on the phone lines in use.

That is changing, Mr. Johnson says.

Verizon is introducing technology later this year in the District and San Diego that will offer higher speed wireless data access that will approach cable-modem-type speeds.

Data transfer speeds currently are limited to up to 144 kilobits per second. Under the new system, that ceiling will rise to 300 to 600 kilobits per second.

Mr. Johnson sees three trends converging that will lead to tomorrow’s videophone possibilities.

Today’s hand-held devices, such as cellular phones, possess far more computing power than their predecessors. That movement will continue, as tomorrow’s cellular phones will pack more memory and processing power than today’s models.

The aforementioned improvement in wireless networks will allow for more data to shoot back and forth.

The third improvement involves the increasing ability to compress data files into more manageable sizes.

“You have all the building blocks to deliver far more robust video experience than exists today,” he says.

Mr. Johnson can envision a time not too far off when a couple will be able to field a call from their baby sitter, have the sitter aim the phone at the children and assure the parents all is well at home.

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