Remember the picturephone? During the 1964 World's Fair in New York the phone company was predicting that within a few years people would be able - and would want - to see the person they were talking to on the telephone.
However, like other optimistic predictions in recent decades - underwater communities, routine space travel, personal helicopters and robot housekeepers - the picturephone is yet another example of how the future takes longer to arrive than we expect.Three years ago three companies began actively selling them in the United States. But devices made by Sony and Mitsubishi are not hot sellers and Panasonic has dropped out of the market.
"It has not been one of our success stories," said Thomas Lauterback of the Electronic Industries Association, a trade group.
Some of the problems are technical. Until the current copper wiring is replaced by high-tech fiber optics, the nation's telephone system cannot handle all of the information a picturephone needs to transmit moving images on a phone line.
As the result, the picturephones on the market today send only wallet-sized black-and-white snapshots, and they cut off all conversation during the five to ten seconds it takes to transmit a picture.
Another problem is price. A Sony Face-to-Face costs $500 and Mitsubishi's VisiTel retails for $400.
Furthermore, unless the person on the other end of the line also has a picturephone, yours is useless.
Although using a picturephone does not increase the price of a long-distance phone call, "It's an expensive way to communicate," Lauterback said.
While you are on the phone to another picturephone owner, the tiny TV camera in your machine is taking a picture of you. You see it on a four-inch-wide monitor.
Then you push a "send" button to transmit the picture to the person you're calling.
The transmission takes up to 10 seconds and you can't talk to the person on the other end of the line while the picture is being sent.
"It's the same principle as a fax machine," said Lauterback. The image "is not what you'd call high resolution."
What happened to the picturephone envisioned by AT&T at the 1964 World's Fair? The company decided there wasn't much of a future for it and never developed the device.