The jaw-dropping evolution of video chat

Video conferencing has transformed from being the stuff of sci-fi to being utterly quotidian in a few decades. Here's how it happened.

Blade Runner video call

Inventors have dreamed about video calling others from a distance for far longer than you might think. This 1910 drawing was part of a series that imagined life in France in the year 2000.

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Video calling was trialed surprisingly early. The Encyclopedia Britannica explains that Bell Labs ran a test in 1927 where they connected President, Herbert Hoover with the AT&T's Walter Gifford in New York City. The video call was one way and preceded a two-way call in 1930. As you might expect, the device looked similar to telephones at the time.

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AT&T's early "picturephones" were a commercial failure. Mashable notes that the firm spent half a billion dollars researching the idea from 1966 to 1973, resulting in creations like the 1969 Mod II pictured here. AT&T reasoned the phones were a failure because they were big, expensive and people didn't want to be seen on the phone.

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In 1987, Mitsubishi launched its first commercial picture phone. The Visitel transmits a still image in 5.5 seconds, during which time the audio call is put on hold. The company boasted that a similar device from Sony took 10 seconds to transmit an image. Neither achieved critical success.

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A breakthrough came in 1991, when students at the University of Cambridge developed a predecessor to the webcam. The camera uploaded an image three times per minute that showed the nearby coffee pot. Students would use the feed to check on the status of the pot, saving them from getting up before brewing was complete.


The rise of the webcam and the camera phone both helped bring video calling to the mainstream. Video streams would now show color images, with full-screen video on portable devices that were easier to carry.

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In 2010, Apple launched the iPhone 4 with a front-facing camera and a new service called FaceTime. It enabled users to quickly video chat with others, with a clean user interface that was as straightforward as a phone call.

Although CEO Steve Jobs promised at the time that FaceTime would be an open standard, compatible with non-Apple devices, the company has never made good on that promise.

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The future of video calling could look even more futuristic. Microsoft's HoloLens augmented reality headset can display a Skype video call over the wearer's field of vision, enabling the other person to assist with tasks.


The future could even bring 3D-scanned subjects into an augmented reality world. In 2018, Vodafone hosted a holographic video call over 5G that placed a 3D rendering of footballer Steph Houghton in the real world.


Today, everyone wants a piece of the video conferencing market. Facebook even makes dedicated hardware for video calls called the Portal.

Microsoft, meanwhile, continues to support Skype — one of the early video-calling solutions — but also offers another video conference product called Teams.

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Google also has two video-calling services, Duo and Meet, though it's expected the company will eventually roll them into one.

But there's one video-calling service that stands out in the crowd and has gone from a niche player to the sector leader...


The growth in video-conferencing service Zoom's Q2 revenue between 2019 and 2020.

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Video calling has helped bring business meetings into the virtual sphere. During the COVID-19 pandemic, group video chats suddenly became a vital way for friend groups to safely hang out without spreading the infection.

While the future could be holographic, for now, it seems society is only just starting to fully utilize the video call.


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