The year was 1968. I was eleven years old. Our family resided in San Antonio, Texas. For six months that year “The Alamo City” hosted “HemisFair”, a world’s fair complete with a towering tower topped with a rotating restaurant.
My favorite pavilion at HemisFair was the Czech Pavilion, which presented “Kino-Automat”, billed as the world’s first interactive movie. Each of the seats in the theater had a pushbutton panel on the armrest with one red and one green button. Five times during the show, at critical junctures in the plot, a live performer appeared onstage and asked the audience to vote on two possible paths for the storyline to take. Once the results were tabulated, the movie moved off in the crowd’s chosen direction.
Kino-Automat’s creator, cinematographer Raduz Cincera, reasoned that, just as children like to make Tinkerbell live by applauding in a performance of Peter Pan, adult audiences would enjoy participating in the outcome of a movie. He was right. Interestingly, audiences always voted for the most adventurous outcomes, not the most prudent or moral. It was a fascinating experiment in group fantasy.
My second favorite HemisFair pavilion was hosted by a phone company, which was probably called Southwestern Bell (now known as AT&T). This pavilion was filled with the wonder of all wonders video phones. You could step into one booth and place a video phone call to others in your party in another booth. It was grainy, it was black and white, but it was amazing. And it was coming. To every home. Sometime in the future.
So here we are, forty years later. Forty years. What happened to the videophone? Was it “electric-car-ed”, the victim of a huge corporate conspiracy? Do people really not want other people to see what they look like, to look them in the eye as they communicate?
In David Foster Wallace’s near-future novel Infinite Jest, the videophone is killed by its users’ vanity. It’s not hard to picture it. Once people start using the videophone, software is developed and used by everyone to make them appear to be dressed in a business suit while they’re actually wearing a bathrobe. Bags under eyes disappear under the software airbrush. Upgrades make people appear younger, more beautiful, attentive, while they’re really sitting on their couch, unshaven, watching TV. Eventually, everyone on the planet uses the software, and, soon after, everyone stops using videophones altogether, because the video signal carries no truth.
So, wither the videophone? It’s alive and well on today’s personal computers. On a Mac it’s called iChat. This Christmas we gathered our family around my MacBook Pro, fired up a videochat with my brother’s family gathered around his Mac, and exchanged greetings, smiles, and hugs. Well, virtual hugs.
A couple of weeks ago I was in Panama while performing my “real job”. It was eighty degrees outside the balcony of my hotel room on Panama City harbor (I know, it’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it). Since the hotel room included a high-speed internet connection, and I didn’t have my iPhone set up for (expensive) international calling, I instead fired up iChat and used it to send an SMS text message to the fetching Mrs. Z’s iPhone, asking her to open iChat on our home computer. She responded, and we video chatted, for free. I was even able to take my trusty MacBook Pro onto the balcony and give her a panoramic view of the harbor.Before we signed off, I looked behind my wife to see the heavy snow falling outside the windows of our home office. I then donned my suit and headed for the pool. Life is good, ain’t it?
|© 2008 Peter F. Zimowski|