Ericsson’s videophone

Inspired by other countries testing of videophones, Ericsson in Sweden began to develop a videophone in the mid-1960s. The Swedish version was aimed at organizations, business, industry, government offices and other public institutions, and intended for their internal operations. The target group was wisely chosen, in light of Bell's failures in the consumer market. Two field tests of the videophone were conducted in Stockholm, one involving communication between two branch offices of the SEB bank in Stockholm and the other between Ericsson and the offices of Televerket, the Swedish PTT.

The videophone tested could be used in two ways: it had a mirror that could be flipped up in front of the camera lens and pointed at a drawing or something similar. This enabled the user to talk to a colleague, for instance, while pointing out something on the drawing to the colleague. In a large company, this could save a great deal of time by enabling the caller to remain in his or her department while discussing the drawing. The camera lens could also be aimed at the caller's face, permitting visual contact with the person contacted.

This would facilitate communication in companies and organizations. The number of man-hours that would be saved was carefully calculated.

Ericsson's videophone consisted of an audio component and an image component. The audio component was the Ericovox loudspeaker phone. It was connected to a monitor with an attached camera. There was no technology available that could enable telephone cables to transmit both audio and video data. New cables had to be laid between the units. Costs skyrocketed, effectively sabotaging the success that had been expected.

Like U.S. retail customers, most of the users were not particularly impressed. They used the videophone mainly to show each other drawings and circuit boards. Few test users actually used it to make calls. Many could not see any reason at all to use it. The need was therefore less than expected, and consequently the phone never came into frequent use.

Such was the conclusion of the final project report, which was presented on June 20, 1977. In combination with the fact that the problem of the high costs was never resolved, it is thus easy to understand why Ericsson abandoned the launch.

Sociological research emphasizes the social aspects of technology. Power, ideas and visions determine which technology eventually prevails. System developers reality may not agree with users reality. There is often a gap between the visions of the system architects and the reality of the users.

It can also be a question of the perception of space. Spaces and places can be experienced as private or public. Telecommunications can change people's perception of spaces and places - just look at what happens in a bus when people start talking on their mobile phones with their friends. But it is not simply a question of how telecommunications organize social space. What is considered private versus public varies in different social and historical contexts. Technology is involved in redefining the world around us. Once a telephone system is in place, it entrenches the relationships around which it was created. Perhaps the videophone was too much of a challenge to our norms of what is private and what is not private.

Author: Petra Jonvallen

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