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Video conferencing is the human face of 21st century technology.

It is a visual connection that brings two people, 20 people, or 200 people face-to-face, no matter where they stand on the planet.

As a cold definition, it reads like this: video conferencing is the transmission of real-time audio and visual data between two or more people at two or more locations, through a computer or telephone network.

Basically, wherever there’s a screen, you’ll find video conferencing. And wherever there could be a screen, you’ll soon find video conferencing. And while video conferencing may seem like a very modern invention, people have in fact been experimenting with it for almost 100 years.

The History of Video Conferencing

Video conferencing as we enjoy it today is carried through the internet and telephone networks, but it got its start in television.

The man who first demonstrated a working television, John Logie Baird, also pioneered the first attempts to create a two-way visual medium in the 1920s and ‘30s. Despite his efforts, and those of the German Postal Service which eventually employed him, video conferencing technology of the era never progressed beyond AT&T’s first crude video call between New York and Washington, D.C. in 1927. That call produced little more than a silhouette on even the largest screens.

While AT&T’s Bell Labs experiments peaked with the Mod 1 Picturephone in 1959, the world had to wait five more years before it got a look at what video conferencing could offer at the 1964 World’s Fair. The Picturephone worked by using a camera to take pictures every couple of seconds and then relaying those images over regular phone lines to be displayed on a television screen.

That first Picturephone, however, was doomed to failure with the public due to its expense, as well as people’s hesitation to be seen on camera during a telephone call. While it floundered, the evolution of video conferencing continued away from the public eye.

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Video conferencing entered the commercial market proper in the early 1980s. But the cost of equipment and calls kept it out of reach for the general public.

Luckily, the computer revolution of the 1980s drove a rapid rise in software sophistication. By the 1990s, advances in video compression and Internet Protocol made it possible for video conferencing to be staged across desktops.

Video calling of this kind first appeared in free services such as NetMeeting and Yahoo Messenger, albeit with low-quality visuals to match the radically reduced price tag.

But that changed with the experimental work of Cornell University.

Cornell’s CU-SeeMe was the first free video conferencing application to prove video could be sent efficiently over the internet. Originally built for Mac, Apple’s near-death experience in the 1990s forced researchers to make it compatible with PC. The application connected up to 30 people at once across an early version of a peer-to-peer network, and hosted the first simulcasts of radio and TV on the internet. The CU-SeeMe experience was powered by $100 webcams, such as the Connectix QuickCam, which, by the mid-1990s, could send images over the internet at 15 frames per second (today’s basic cameras operate at 24 frames per second) at a resolution of 320×240 pixels.

This affordable and accessible version of video conferencing was the direct forerunner to freemium services–that is, free access to a basic product in exchange for advertising or the lure of advanced subscription services–that dominate social video calling today, such as the Scandinavian marvel Skype.

But before we could get to the point where Skype started accumulating its army of 560 million users, several advances had to take place across the digital landscape.

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Finally, all this technology converged, as the iPhone so effectively demonstrated upon its launch in 2007. Within a single generation, video conferencing moved from a $250,000 undertaking to a built-in feature of phones, computers, and even televisions.

And it has come to play a part in all facets of our lives.

Video Conferencing Today

Video conferencing today owes it’s reach and power to the incredible growth of the internet over the past 20 years. And the internet is really, really, really big. Every second, there are:

Every second, 3.2 billion people are using the internet, generating 1 zettabyte of traffic, which is equal to 36,000 years of hi-def video. Access to that network of people drawn from every continent on Earth, as well as the technology to let video signals travel through even basic internet bandwidth, has given video conferencing the power to match any other form of electronic communication.

As the internet grew to support greater bandwidth, the cloud computing revolution took over and allowed people to chat instantly with a simple download. Video conferencing technology became easier to access and cheaper than ever before, and dependence on expensive in-room hardware waned.

Coupled with hardware advances that have shrunk cameras to the size of pens, provided 360-degree views, introduced immersive-level ultra high-definition displays, and given rise to automatic zoom and speaker tracking, video conferencing now plays a part in nearly all our human endeavors.

Video conferencing has not only let us meet each other face-to-face across impossible distances, it is also being adapted to emerging technologies to change the way we interact and see each other.

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All these technologies will play a part in the video conferencing possibilities of tomorrow. But there are even more wonders in store.

Video Conferencing in the Future

Video conferencing is headed toward two kinds of futures. First there’s the future we can see: the one built on the increased accessibility, reliability, and affordability of today’s technologies.

And then there’s the future we can’t see. That one that still belongs to prototype, speculation, and imagination.

The immediate future centers around the creation of a common, level playing field. That means the continued deployment of internet infrastructure that brings high speed services to populations around the world.

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While 60% of people in the U.S. have access to a smartphone and its instant video conferencing platforms, fewer than 25% of the global population has one.

Those people need to be reached.

This common playing field also depends on the reduction in price and size of the current leading technologies. And few products are so quick to shrink in both ways as new technologies.

With those twin goals achieved, there’s potential for a radical change in the ways and wheres of how we work and live.

The U.S. workforce is already gradually shifting away from geographic tethers. Today, almost 10% of employees telecommute to work at least half the time. A further 9% do so once a week.

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But the total employee exposure to telecommuting has tripled in the past 20 years.

Extend that growth into the coming decades, and factor in an acceleration due to more affordable tech and greater cultural acceptance, and you have a workforce that isn’t herded toward the major cities in search of employment.

Instead, those that enter the workforce in the 2020s and 2030s will be free to make decisions about where they live based solely on their desired environment, amenities, taxation laws, and social connections. And that could extend across the globe, not just the states.

Video conferencing is set to birth a borderless, worldwide workforce, one that has personal access to 3D video conferencing, that uses augmented and mixed reality to present themselves and their wares, and that works from home or in communal coworking spaces far removed from any corporate HQ.

It’s not hard to imagine how the further integration of new visual technologies with video conferencing will change our possibilities.

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That potential future is dependant on nothing more than a continuation of our current trajectory. But there’s a genius or two out there, or a stroke of good fortune, that could radically change things. One of those could be MIT’s dynamic shape display project inFORM.

MIT’s inFORM prototype moves video conferencing from illusion to physical interaction by rendering 3D movement into a physical presence over the internet. The technology means remote callers can move objects in real time with their own hands on shared surfaces. One potential of this tech is the ability to scale it up beyond human capabilities in order to remotely sculpt and move objects with superhuman strength. Applications for inFORM are nearly endless, but include manufacturing, construction, architecture, and disaster relief. And this isn’t the only science fiction-like, video conferencing-based technology in our future.

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The Internet of Things (IoT) is already connecting the everyday objects that surround us–the coffee machine, your car keys, the parking meter, your thermostat–to the internet.

Eventually, IoT will place a fixed video conferencing screen wherever there’s a power supply and a demand. But projection technology advances may actually make the fixed screen obsolete.

Continued infrastructure deployment will bring broadband connections to remote communities. But satellite technology may make fixed infrastructure obsolete.

Browser-based video conferencing platforms have come onto the scene to let people stage instant video meetings without signup or hardware. But wearable technology may make third-party connections obsolete.

There’s little that’s fixed if you look forward enough into the future.

No matter what, as long as the human face is the main conduit for real human connection, video conferencing will be the most effective means of communication.

Image source: Flickr CC user sndvr