Culture

How 138 years of sci-fi video phones led to the Echo Show

The latest Alexa device from Bezos and friends will finally give us video calling the way decades of movies predicted it would look. What took so long? Here's a timeline.

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While many of us have been making video calls for over a decade, Amazon's new Echo Show -- with its stand-alone screen and lack of any input mechanism besides voice -- could finally bring us a video phone from our futuristic dreams. It's been a long time coming. I went back and traced the twisting technological path paved by over a century of science fiction to figure out how we finally got to this point.

Almost as soon as Alexander Graham Bell tersely ordered Watson to "come here" over the world's first phone call, visions of video communications (or at least visual communications) leapt out of our imaginations. Even in its earliest days, Hollywood started running with the idea, from Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" on up to "Back to the Future."

This call does not end well for poor Marty McFly.

Video screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

One of the earliest visions of a picture phone came in 1879, just a few years after Bell made that fateful first call. Artist George du Maurier imagined a "telephonoscope" that transmitted not only sound, but images to be projected on the wall.

Punch's Almanack in 1879 may have kicked off a century-long sci-fi obsession.

Heidelberg University Library

The fiction of Jules Verne also predicted we'd chat via a system of transmitting mirrors called a "phonotelephote," though he thought it would take us considerably longer to figure out such fantastical technology: it appears in his 1889 short story titled "In the Year 2889."

Interestingly, Hugo Gernsback, an American writer of early science fiction, detailed a device called the "Telephot" that's probably the closest conception to the brand new Echo Show, and he did it all the way back in 1911 in his influential novel "Ralph 124C 41+." Gernsback also greatly underestimated the pace of technological advance -- his story was set in 2660.

gernsback.jpg

Pretty close to what Amazon will launch in June.

Library of Congress

Verne and Gernsback were both huge futurists of their day, long before anyone started using the title to better position themselves for an invitation to give a TED talk.

By the time actual moving pictures became easier to record and play back for an audience (real-time transmission was still a long way off, of course), early sci-fi films quickly got to work solidifying the video phone of the future as a recurring trope.

The 1927 classic "Metropolis" features a videophone, as does Chaplin's "Modern Times" and 1935's "Transatlantic Tunnel."

Meanwhile, IRL, the first video-calling service was actually launched in 1936. Yes, really. The reason you probably haven't heard this little bit of history is that it was only available (and only for Aryans) in a few special booths in Nazi Germany for a little while before the start of World War II.

By the 1960s and dawn of the space age, science fiction was beginning to take a more prominent position in pop culture, perhaps assisted by a corresponding rise in the prominence of psychedelics.

"Star Trek," "The Jetsons" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" all featured the wall-mounted video calling screens we'd spend the next 50 years or so waiting for. The technology on display in these stylistic visions of the future was so seamless, simple, intuitive and high quality it may have doomed the many attempts at launching comparatively tiny and expensive photo and video phones in the last half of the 20th century.

Remember Bell Labs' PicturePhone II? Or Sony's Teleface from 1987? Nope, me neither. These failed video phones were so dismissed and forgotten by history they have yet to warrant the creation of their own Wikipedia pages. They were all kind of similar to this absurdly expensive Videophone 2500 from AT&T, which also went nowhere:

While these real-world video phones failed to catch on, science fiction continued to imagine video calls as our technological capabilities grew and wireless calls became a thing.

"Knight Rider"'s KITT got a video phone in its dash, and "Blade Runner" hero Deckard also got one in his mobile "vid phone."

By the time Austin Powers was making video calls from his car in 1997, I was chatting with (albeit much more grainy) images from my dorm room. From there it was only a matter of time.

Yet somehow we went 20 more years before anyone introduced a mass-market device with a chance at bringing our video calls into the living room the way we'd grown accustomed to seeing in countless works of fiction.

Now it's finally here. Next month we'll be able to plug Echo Show into the wall, set it up in the kitchen or living room and simply tell it who we want to call, just like in the movies. Amazon's new Drop-In feature will even let pre-approved people appear unannounced on the screen in a very "Jetsons" way.

But now that the future is here, there's little time to stop and admire just how far we've come or reflect on the surprisingly long and winding road that led us here.

Instead, we continue with a laser focus forward on the future. After all, video calls are great, but we still don't even have domestic robots and flying cars yet.

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