Saturday, February 17, 2007

Science fiction to science fact - a case study

It's strange how sometimes very disparate strands and ideas suddenly form themselves into a coherent thread. I was in a lesson last talking about using Skype with one of my students, a senior doctor in a hospital here in Thessaloniki when he mentioned that the already knew about the idea of teleconferencing as the hospital had just set up a regular link with another clinic in which doctors would be able to take part. Then again, he added he'd first come across this technology in action more than ten years ago in a conference in Spain.

I suddenly remembered that I'd read that the idea of using phones to transmit images was not a new one and that it had first been presented in the 60's. After a little googling I found out that the Picturephone was first presented to the public by AT&T in 1964. However, when it came out commercially in the 70':

"It was a disaster. People queued in droves to avoid buying it. What happened? Part of the reason was the cost. Picturephone was not cheap: $125 per month plus $21 per minute. Also, there was the problem of how you use a picturephone when you're one of the very few people who have one. Without a compelling reason to think that people were going to sign up for picturephones real quick you're faced with the reality that there's a whole lot of nobody to talk to out there.

Whatever the reasons, the picturephone limped along briefly and then was quietly pulled at a loss of $1 billion."

Later on, with the advent of the internet the idea was revived in the form of the videophone in the 90's. Once again expensive specialised equipment was needed and the the price was beyond the means of most consumers. I remember working in a school were they had such a system which scandalised us all as it cost over a million drachmas (or six months wages for most of us). Once again the technology remained unused and quickly was taken away.

What has changed now is that with the introduction of voip applications such as Skype we can now have the same kind of communication for almost nothing. If you have a computer and a broadband connection then all you need is a headset and a webcam. (my equipment cost me 25
euros in total).

As far as education is concerned check out Vicki Davis's great post on using Skype to bring in outside expertise to our classrooms here. Also check out how an Electronic Peace Corp could transform education (and not only) in developing countries here .

1 comment:

Simon Baddeley said...

I see you are back in Greece and what a fascinating piece. I enjoy the image of people q'ing not to buy the first version. So much depended on it being free as well as bandwidth. I recall someone saying that digitisation was conceived with semaphore long long ago but we hadn't got light speed electronics to turn it into a picture let along the means of transmission - unless you booked a succession of mountaintops and a hundrd well disciplined crowds with black and white squares to hold up - and so not even colour (:)) I believe the mobile phone arrived just in time to tell people your train was late! S