This day in tech history: Intel announces the PC video phone

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In an age of Facetime, Skype and Google Hangouts, video calling is pretty much ubiquitous — an aspect of technology that we simply take for granted. But it wasn’t always this way.

Eighteen years ago today, AT&T and Intel held a May 30 meeting to announce a system that would allow personal computers to make and receive video phone calls over standard telephone lines.

“It sounds futuristic, but it’s here,” Intel noted in its annual report for 1996. “For the first time, a simple low-cost, PC-based video phone.”

For those of us now used to initiating a video call on our iPhone with the press of just one button, the system sounds complex. Users had to initiate or answer a regular phone call and then jump to their home computer to add video on the same line. While jerky compared to the “continuous motion” of television, it was less so than previous standalone videophones, which transmitted snapshots at regular intervals.

The peripheral was scheduled for release in fall 1996 — adding $200 to the price of each computer — and manufacturing giants like Compaq (remember them?) immediately announced they would be supporting the technology. Good news for Intel, whose executive VP of Internet Communications projected big numbers as a result: expected to run into hundreds of thousands of video-phone ready computers in 1996, and “millions more” in 1997.

It wasn’t all good news though. The technology required some pretty heavy tech firepower in order to work — including a PC armed with a whopping 133-MHz Pentium processor minimum and an ISDN line, which the New York Times noted was “usually expensive and difficult to obtain from local telephone companies.”

Still, the technology was proof positive we were moving into a new sci-fi golden age of home communications. And who better to illustrate this giant leap for mankind than the white-hot-in-1996 Jason “George Costanza” Alexander of Seinfeld fame?

About the author

Luke DormehlLuke Dormehl is a UK-based journalist and author, with a background working in documentary film for Channel 4 and the BBC. He is the author of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems, And Create More and The Apple Revolution, both published by Penguin/Random House. His tech writing has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Techmeme, and other publications. He'd like you a lot if you followed him on Twitter.

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