I should really have titled this article ‘Talking to People Through Machines’, but that’s a bit long-winded and not quite as eye-catching as simply ‘Talking to Machines’.
The main purpose for this posting was to add a picture I came across on Treehugger showing a cartoon of two people making video-calls. It was published in a German magazine of the 1930’s. As the article (by Lloyd Alter) on Treehugger highlights, not only is this fascinating for predicting personal video phones (or as we know them now Smartphones with Skype or Facetime apps), but also the attitude of the people – casually ignoring the person in front of them in preference to the machine.
Of course video phones have popped up in science fiction almost since the beginning of science fiction. Even shortly after the invention of the telephone people were already speculating on the possibility of seeing the person you were speaking to. There are many examples of videophones that come to mind from cinema, but rarely are they ever handheld devices. Some of the most memorable include the one built by humans as a test set by super-brainy aliens in ‘This Island Earth‘ and the space-station to earth call in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘. There was also one in ‘Metropolis‘ in 1927 and I’m sure similar ones were also used in the 30’s science fiction serials like ‘Flash Gordon‘ and ‘The Phantom Empire‘.
There are good overviews of the history and development (usually at huge expense with little advancement) of real working examples of the videophone idea on the Wikipedia entry (under Videophone, of course!). There is also quite an interesting article here (which is one of many articles on Retrofuturistic ideas which might be worth further investigation).
AT&T spent over US$500 million up to the end of the 60’s on the development of their own Picturephone, but a paragraph from the Picturephone article (a part of the Tales of Future Past on the fascinating davidszondy site) probably explains why the whole idea didn’t really take off until the arrival of computers, smartphones and apps:-
Part of the reason was the cost. Picturephone was not cheap: $125 per month plus $21 per minute. Also, there was the problem of how you use a Picturephone when you’re one of the very few people who have one. Without a compelling reason to think that people were going to sign up for picturephones real quick you’re faced with the reality that there’s a whole lot of nobody to talk to out there.