Sunday, September 19, 2010

Smiling at a Screen

Looking at my computer, the last face I would expect to see is my tubby, czecholslavakian grandpa or “papa” smiling back. Since I’ve attended college I have become accustomed to the Friday night texts from my dad requesting me to “Go on skype” cause they are having a family dinner. And, sure enough, when I open up my computer I see the jolly face of my papa who in no way understand the legitimacy, or history of webcam technology.

The moment the webcam technology came out my dad got one…cause it was the cool thing to do. Then, when it came time for me to get my own laptop for college, the webcam was built into my computer. So why did the webcam take off and become an acceptable way to communicate, yet the videophone, first developed by Dr. George Schubert in the 1930s, failed miserable? Many would argue that it was the price to use the videophone technology that stopped it from becoming “mainstream.” The initial cost was $16 per three minutes and the device was set up in public booths in large cities. However, I argue that the video calling stalled in the 60s because it was not fully integrated into the communication methods of the time.

The videophone was a singular device that did not double as anything else, not even a normal telephone. A computer allows users to utilize multiple applications at different times, the webcam being one of them. Webcams were able to flourish because they were integrated with the current functions of computer, which had become the primary hub for communication. The technology was an extension of the computers current technology and was added to already popular communication methods such as instant messaging, group chatting, and email. The webcam had a built-in audience – the millions of mainstream computer users.

And although I wouldn’t necessarily consider my grandpa “mainstream”…he still finds time to say hi to me via a webcam.


  1. I think you are right that the webcam's usefulness as just one application of a computer definitely helped it flourish.

    In the same way, will the reappearance of the videophone (e.g. the iPhone 4's FaceTime, and applications of similar new Smartphones) as an application instead of a unique product finally work its way into the mainstream?

    Or, are the same limitations of the videophone still present with FaceTime and similar applications (for instance, both users still must have a phone with video capabilities)?

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  3. I can't hear "Video Phone" without quickly associating it with the Beyonce/Lady Gaga song. Here's a link if you haven't seen it:

    To respond to Jesse's comment, Beyonce's lyrics emphasize how the video phone is newly integrated into current smart phone technology, similar to its function on the latest laptops. In doing so she regenerates interest in video phone, by emphasizing the recording function of the technology, as well as its ability to make calls.

    She croons, "You saying that you want me, so press record I'll let you film me." Then adds, "baby don't fight it, 'cuz when I miss your call I hit you right back, on my video phone": revealing that she, too is an owner of the technology.

    Beyonce normalizes the mainstream use of video phones by extrapolating on their many functions, as they relate to her sexiness.