If you build it, they will videophone

Apple’s FaceTime is stoking the flames of videophoning passion, and could help video telephony finally engulf the living room (to complete the suddenly ridiculous fire metaphor).

Yes, futurists have been prognosticating ubiquitous videophones since, well, since futurists have been prognosticating; in 1964, the Bell System actually initiated a short-lived video telephone service between New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, and Dr. Heywood Floyd famously called his daughter on a space station pay video phone in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But all videophone efforts, either via standalone phones or TV add-ons, meant the purchase of two phones (it takes two to video chat) to create a critical mass of videophoning households.

Why hasn’t widespread videophoning happened? It’s been postulated that we phone chatterers simply wanted to be heard and not seen. Bull donkey. We love webcam video chatting on our PCs. Why? We didn’t have to buy any special equipment. It’s nearly impossible to find either a laptop or desktop PC without a built-in Web cam; it’s this “if you build it in, they will video call” that is the secret to living room and mobile video telephony.

(Curiously, I’m stunned Apple didn’t make FaceTime an extension of iChat so anyone with at least a webcam-enabled Mac could make and receive video calls from the 4. One has to believe such a link will be established at some point, or that Skype will create a video call app, if Apple let’s them have access to the camera API, or that AT&T’s network will become robust enough to enable cell video calls. But we’ll probably have to wait until 4G LTE before this happens. But I digress.)

Skype is supplying this Phone of Dreams solution for the living room. A slew of net-enabled HDTVs from LG and Panasonic include Skype-powered high-definition videophone capabilities built-in – but you have to buy an LG- or Panasonic-specific webcam, each of which will have four built-in microphones, for an extra $100.

Needing an add-on webcam should be a temporary situation. But neither Panasonic nor LG has indicated next-gen HDTVs will include a webcam and microphone array built into the bezel like on a PC. They’re all afraid it’ll drive up the price on their sets, making them less competitive to price-sensitive consumers. Supposedly, Toshiba’s pending CELL TV will include a built-in webcam for videophoning, presumably using Skype, although the company has yet to officially say so either way.

Eventually, though, all Web-connected HDTVs will include a built-in webcam for videophoning. And as people grow used to videophoning, landline phone makers, seeking any way to boost sagging sales, will launch Skype-powered video phones for other rooms in the house, and LTE-powered cellphones will include forward-facing cameras to enable video calls.

Within a decade, everyone could have videophones in each room of the house, and enable a whole new way of looking – literally – at phone sex.

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