The future has arrived on the UCLA and Berkeley campuses.
It's called Phonavision, described by its developer as the world's first video phone for the public.
Since earlier this month, students on the University of California campuses have been able to see each other as well as speak to each other during calls between the schools' student unions.
The California students have been dialing each other on Phonavision, developed by the Los Angeles firm of Communications Technologies. As Stephen Strickland, the firm's chief executive officer, explained, customers at UCLA step into the Phonavision booth and are connected with the Phonavision booth in the Berkeley student union. As the customers speak, they can see each other on a postcard-size screen.
Because there are only two booths in the system, callers have to make prior arrangements to be in their respective booths at a particular time or settle for whoever answers at the other end.
Last week, the calls were free. This week the firm will start charging users $10 for three minutes of conversation with a view.
"The general reaction has been very positive," said Strickland, who has been visiting the UCLA booth almost daily since it was installed. Most users love the idea of being able to see each other, although, Strickland acknowledged, "not everyone wants to see people before they've got out of the shower in the morning."
Strickland said his firm decided to install the campus Phonavision booths to get user feedback that he hopes will be useful in refining his video telephone.
"We're looking for information from the users' point of view in order for us to redesign the system before we manufacture it," Strickland said. The test will continue throughout the semester, he said. Strickland estimated that the system is six months to a year away from commercial availability. Such a system is already viable, he said, but its scope would be limited and its cost high. Eventually, he said, he believes every airport and shopping mall will have its video phone booths.
Phonavision is not without precedent. Bell Telephone introduced a video phone system at the 1964 World's Fair, according to Daylanne Johnson of A T & T in Los Angeles. Picturephone, as it was called, was also test-marketed in several cities. "It didn't catch on," Johnson said. "People didn't want to be seen all the time in their various states of disarray."
A T & T is developing a video phone system using a different technology, as are several other companies.
At UCLA the Phonavision booth, which looks like an unusually commodious phone booth, has been set up on the second floor of the student union amid half a dozen automated bank teller machines.
The interior of the booth is Doris Day pink. "It was important that the booth look friendly because it's a new technology and some people are afraid of that," said booth designer Nancy Alpers. "We figured pink would be good because it brings out your skin tone."
Among the modifications suggested by the 30 or so local students a day who have used Phonavision since it was installed: A larger viewing screen and an opaque booth door for greater privacy.
In its present form, Phonavision displays color video pictures on a small screen of both the caller and callee. The major glitch in the system is that the image falls apart if either person jiggles his or her head. "If you move your head at all, the image will break up," Strickland said. If the caller holds his or her head still, however, the person at the other end receives a clear picture of the caller's face, including relatively realistic movements of the caller's mouth and eyes.
Strickland said he chose UCLA and Berkeley for the test "because they are both universities known for innovation." Of the students, he said, these are people who grew up with modern technology, unlike himself. "My first ATM card scared me to death," he said. "Students aren't intimidated by new technology. They aren't afraid to get in there and push buttons."
Attendants hired by Communications Technologies are on hand on both campuses to help students make their calls.
The Phonavision is only the jazziest of the booth's functions, Strickland said. It is also equipped to dispense blank videotapes and to allow users to play videotapes and to record video messages. "We're taking a visual-information vending machine approach," the entrepreneur said. The video phone is the system's "sizzle," its flashiest attraction, he said.
The booth accepts major credit cards and cash.
Kara Yeung, a Berkeley student and Phonavision employee who was interviewed over the device, said she thinks it will catch on, even though calls are expensive. "If you have a really good friend or a boyfriend or girlfriend on the other campus, it's worth it because you can see them. Otherwise you'd have to go down to Los Angeles," she said.
Chris Kouteres, a 21-year-old senior at UCLA, accepted an offer to try out the system. Encouraged by a Communications Technology employee who told him, "It's kind of like a blind date," he chatted for several minutes with Yeung.
Kouteres said Phonavision has real potential.
He said that his brother goes to Berkeley. "When UCLA played Cal, we made a bet that the loser would wear the winner's school sweat shirt all day. This would be a great way of seeing if he was keeping up his end of the bargain."