Archive for Monday, March 31, 2003

Videophones help bring latest scenes of war to TV sets

March 31, 2003


"Dad?" the voice questioned on the other end. "We're going downtown, then over to Jenny's."

"OK," I said, before she hung up. I realized I couldn't tell who it was speaking. My three daughters often sound alike on the phone.

I guess it was Bonnie. It could have been Julie. Or maybe they were together.

I went back to watching the CNN report.

"... and now we go to Gary Tuckman, live via videophone ..."


Embedded with coalition forces somewhere in Iraq, the reporter was talking about A-10 Attack Warthogs taking off and landing from a captured air field at night.

His voice was clear.

But the color picture was choppy, with the camera showing only 10 to 15 frames per second, with some occasional pixelation. It had the same choppy far-away feel as NASA's televised images of the moon landings.

I kept watching the CNN report, where Ben Wedeman was reporting live from northern Iraq as he pointed the videophone camera toward the flashes of light in the night sky.

I wondered if such videophones would ever be available to those of us who weren't war correspondents.

Talking Heads

The videophones that the CNN reporters were using are TH-1 "Talking Head" units that are rugged and portable. They can work anywhere there is an ISDN line or a Inmarsat satellite terminal.

The unit is housed in a waterproof case that is about the size of a lunch box. The single-chip camera picture resolution is 352 by 288 pixels and sends at up to 15 frames per second.

Images from the camera go into the videophone, where they are compressed digitally. Then they go to a global area network satellite terminal. That terminal sends the data to an Inmarsat satellite and back to the home office.

With such videophones, reporters are able to travel almost anywhere and file their reports without expensive and cumbersome satellite trucks.

If you're thinking about getting one, get ready to shell out $7,950 for the videophone, manufactured by 7E Communications Ltd., London.

Beaming in

But that's obviously the high-end. There are some videophones on the market that seem to indicate we're getting a little closer to Jetson-style, two-way TV that almost anyone could afford.

One of the most promising is called The Beamer (

The Beamer comes in a pair of units that cost about $500 and look a little like picture frames. You plug your wall phone into one, then plug the unit into a regular phone outlet. Plug the power supply into a wall socket and you can make your call.

You can buy additional Beamers for about $300 each.

Each of the units has a 3.5-inch wide flat LCD screen and a built-in camera. A few buttons allow you to control the brightness of the picture. And it has a privacy function -- you can snap a photo of yourself to display during a conversation. They're also portable. You can take one of them with you on vacation. It plugs into any analog phone.

Because of the cost, the Beamer is still in the "cool toy" stage. But it has been getting a lot of publicity. A pair were included in each of the gift bags that celebrities received at this year's Academy Awards.

On the drawing board

Other video phones seem more likely to be used for business.

One is the InnoMedia VideoPhone (, which is being marketed for teleconferencing. It looks like a desktop digital phone with a small screen at the top.

Still on the drawing board, it seems, is the Orange Videophone (, which combines a PDA and a mobile phone with a video camera.

The camera swivels 270 degrees so you can point it at objects. You also can record video and take photos and send them as e-mail.

The Orange Videophone was supposed to launch in 2000 for about $800, but the reviews on it indicate the picture quality isn't what was expected. So it's still in the research and development phase.

Getting more information

I wondered if these new video phones would ever be more than an expensive toy. I decided to get the opinion of an expert -- my oldest teenage daughter.

"I'd like a videophone," Katy said.

"It would be so much nicer to talk to my friends who don't go to school here. It's kind of hard to hear a story about somebody they're talking about without knowing what the person looks like. Or if someone has a baby, you can see it over the phone. You can kind of do that on the Web, if you have a Web phone."

The phone rang. Katy's sister, Julie, picked it up.

"Hey ... huh? What?" Julie looked puzzled.

"I think you want Katy," she said, handing Katy the phone.

"Another reason," Katy said, laughing.

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