Phone Stuff

(Part of The Future: A Retrospective)


Telephone Smart Cards

Telephone Smart Cards
Odds 99%
Year 1004
Cost N/A

If you're a college kid, you won't have to collect gobs of change to call your sweetie from the pay phone. Just go to the newsstand and load up on these telephone cards... There are a certain amount of calling units, say $10 worth, on each card.

Amazingly accurate! Within a mile of where I live there are probably fifty stores selling these cards. Except Future Stuff thought phone cards would be smart cards. Because they talked to Jerome Svigals, author of Smart Cards.

In actuality, phone cards are dumb as dirt. They end up as litter. All the card has going for it is a number. The intelligence is all in an intermediary between you and the rest of the phone system, which takes the number and agrees to shoulder the cost of a call. This makes smart cards as cheap to manufacture as random numbers.

More indignity: Svigals predicts that telephone cards will negate the need to outfit telephones with coin slots at all, becuase everyone will use the cards. In actuality, we have telephones with coin slots, dumb PIN-based cards for making calls without coins... and personal phones that we carry around with us.


Picture Phone

Picture Phone
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $800/1989 ($1300/2007) for set of two

"Now there is a picture phone that's reasonably priced, but it doesn't do all that we might have anticipated." For instance, it's probably not what you're thinking of; that would be a video phone (which comes up next). Mitsubishi's VisiTel is a phone that can take black-and-white still photos and send them over the wire. This takes 5.5 seconds during which you can't say anything. So it's like talking to someone on the moon. The picture there is one I stole from a classified ad on Craigslist; you can see others by doing an image search. It looks like it still works fine on today's phone system.

Today most new cell phones can take pictures, but we don't have a notion of sending pictures to the person you're talking to while you're talking to them. It's a whole different application.

Future Stuff gamely tries to spice up the VisiTel:

A wide-angle lens (to send pictures of the whole wedding party) and a close-up lens (to transmit a picture of the ring) are available options.

The fact that we as a nation were willing to grasp at this straw proves how barren the 80s were.


Video Telephone

Video Telephone
Odds 90%
Year 1995
Cost $14,900/1989 ($24000/2006)

A classic future standby, second only to the flying car and jetpack. Third, then. Future Stuff name-checks the AT&T demonstration at Expo 67, then starts alleging that U.V.C. Corporation will deliver a videophone in 1995. You could write a whole history of 20th-century technology solely based on videophones.

The system is comprised of a color video camera, a 13-inch color video monitor, a transceiver...for recording and transmitting video images over ordinary telephone lines, and a telephone for transmission of audio signals over a second telephone line... The video phone also comes equipped with an electronic "blackboard," through which images drawn on the screen with a light pen can be sent to a recipient's screen. It can also capture and store permanent records of visual images on the 3/5-inch floppy disk at the touch of a button.

You probably didn't notice the problems there because you flew into a rage at misuse of the word "comprise", but that's a lot of equipment, including two telephone lines. It also costs more than a car. But Future Stuff accepts U.V.C. president John Looney at his word:

"We are convinced... that in time, every home and office that currently uses a telephone will one day use the video phone."

He does not boast in vain. Since the video phone can be linked to ordinary phone lines...the product has virtually unlimited potential for consumers and industries alike.

Unlike the flying car and the jetpack, the videophone works fine. It's just that people don't really want it, possibly for the reasons given by David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest. For a while at work we used a videoconferencing system; it was a pain to set up and it didn't give us much.

I don't see any evidence that U.V.C. ever released a product. Future Stuff does mention that their videophone would have worked by transmitting only the parts of the frame that have changed since last time, a technique that's commonly used in streaming video today and works especially well when every frame is just somebody's head. Here's the latest announced videophone. Enjoy it if you can.


Holograph Phone

Holograph Phone
Odds 5%
Year 1999
Cost $2000/1989 ($3300/2007)

Now we go rocketing up the Singularity-like exponential curve of future-phones with a product that even Future Stuff admits is a long shot, but which will apparently cost about 1/8 of what the video phone will cost. This phone is the brainchild of Stephen Benton of the MIT Media Lab.

"The phone would make use of a camera with two lenses installed in your home and owuld need to be hooked up by a fiber-optic line to a super-computer, presumably operated by the phone company." Tell me more of this super-computer! If you liked buying another phone line for your videophone, you'll love buying a dedicated fiber-optic line for your holophone.

Holographic phones have never been available for any price. I'm sure this was just a historical accident of the fact that the phone company got broken up in the 80s, and now that AT&T has bought up all the companies it was once split into, innovation in the field will be invigorated, with fiber-optics galore!


Selection Telephone

Selection Telephone
Odds 50%
Year 1995
Cost $208/1989 ($340/2007)

You're not like the others. Their grubby pawprints soil Princess phones and mar clear plastic novelty phones that light up when they ring. You lead a more exclusive lifestyle, and demonstrating that fact to all requires a higher class of telephone. You need... Selection Telephone.

Actually I have no idea what Selection Telephone means because I haven't read the Future Stuff entry yet. Ah, it's a call screener. Someone who wants to call you needs to enter the four-digit code you've selected. In the days before caller ID, this would have been an effective if sledgehammery way to avoid unwanted calls. The setup would have presented an irresistable obstacle for phone phreaks, but there's no real reason why, having broken your code, a phone phreak would want to talk to you.

This device was made by Sanyo (probably the same people who brought you the Solar Windows) and was available in Japan at the time of Future Stuff writing—thus the strangely specific retail price. Here's a NYT article from 1987 about the Japanese introduction, which claims that a caller's code is the last four digits of their own phone number. I guess that's a good convention that stops users from thinking of easy-to-guess codes.


Telephone Voice Changer

Telephone Voice Changer
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $995/1989 ($1600/2007)

The telephone voice changer does that it says: changes the perceived gender of your voice, adds misleading sound effects, and so on. It has a "cup-like device" that goes over the telephone mouthpiece, and a mike for you to talk into. I briefly thought the "cup-like device" might be like an acoustic coupler, but the picture makes it look more like a muffin.

Future Stuff sees a bright future for the DVC-1000 in situations where subterfuge is called for: "if you're a spy, a private detective, or a cheating husband or wife."

The DVC-1000 was being sold in trial markets when Future Stuff was written, but now DVC-1000 is the model number of a D-Link videophone! I can't find anything online about "security device" manufacturer CCS Communications Control.

Phone voice changers now cost $30-$70/2007 and the websites that sell them offer additional uses: if you're a kid home alone, or a woman living alone, you can disguise your voice to make the caller think you're not alone.


Message Stopper

Message Stopper
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $15/1989 ($24/2006)

Message Stopper (from generic-company-name pioneer DesignTech International, Inc.) is a third-party fix to a common problem with answering machines: that if you pick up the phone too late, your answering machine message just keeps yammering on and you have to shout over it. At some point in the 90s they fixed this problem with answering machines, and then the answering machine died altogehter.


Sound Wedge

Sound Wedge
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $30/1989 ($50/2006)

The name sounds way cooler than the product is. The sound wedge connects those two great uniform interfaces of the pre-Internet age: the sound system and the phone system. When the phone rings, it turns off your stereo speaker. It's "availble now in a few specialty catalogues". What, no Hammacher Schlemmer?

"Sound wedge" now seems to have something to do with car speakers.


Two-Receiver Phone

Two-Receiver Phone
Odds 50%
Year 1995
Cost $95/1989 ($160/2007)

This is very strange and not on the web anywhere, so I'm going to describe it in a fair amount of detail. NTT set up a system called Duet as part of a plan to get teenagers to speak more Japanese. They put oversized phone booths in "450 Japanese teenage haunts", and each phone booth had one phone line but two phone handsets. You would call another augmented phone booth, and two people on each end would have a four-way conversation. I guess this promotes Japanese usage by adding more people to the conversation and enforcing a lowest common denominator.

This was a big success, possibly because Japan had missed out on the earlier American craze for fitting multiple people into a single phone booth. NTT decided to bring a similar system to American homes: a Cerberus-like phone with two receivers, called Plus One. A company sold a couple thousand home units and ran out. Then it showed up in Future Stuff and that was the end of it.

Nowadays teenagers can duplicate this behavior by setting up a conference call on everybody's cell phone, assuming they can figure out how to do that. When I was a teenager that was the sort of thing I was good at, so probably.


Movable Phone Jack

Movable Phone Jack
Odds 90%
Year 1990
Cost $125

Hemmingway wrote that Paris is a movable phone jack, but Paris was never like this! As you can see, I'm trying out my magazine-style writing. It's easier when you can make stuff up.

The movable phone jack runs a phone line over the power lines in your house. Plug in the movable part and you've got a phone jack. It's made by Phonex, and they're still at it.


This document (source) is part of Crummy, the webspace of Leonard Richardson (contact information). It was last modified on Monday, March 31 2008, 00:26:30 Nowhere Standard Time and last built on Wednesday, September 03 2014, 04:00:05 Nowhere Standard Time.

Crummy is © 1996-2014 Leonard Richardson. Unless otherwise noted, all text licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Document tree:

http://www.crummy.com/
writing/
TheFuture/
Phone Stuff.html
Site Search: