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HIST 330 Deafness and Technology: Videophones and Webcams

This guide discusses some Deaf technologies that DHH people used in the past and use today.


Did you know that NTID had a video phone in the late 1960s and early 1970s? It was called the Vista Phone and could only be used with other Vista Phone users in the LBJ building. It was developed by the Stromberg-Carlson company in Rochester. They connected a TV with telephone lines. Eventually it was phased out to due to the high expense. The RIT/NTID Deaf Studies Archive has two of these Vista Phones.

Most of the information here is taken from this article, 132 Years of the Videophone by Benj Edwards published by Technologizer on June 14, 2010.  A timeline is available in the TDI National Directory. The concept of the videophone goes back to when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Scientists speculated (including Bell) on how to transmit images as well as sound. George Veditz also wrote to Alexander G. Bell in 1915 to ask him to create a videophone for the Deaf. AT & T experimented with the video phone in 1927, and developed the 1956 “Picture-Phone” prototype in 1961. The Picture-Phone I premiered at the World's Fair in 1964 and due to compatibility issues with the telephone network and high expense, it had limited success. In 1970, AT & T came up with the PicturePhone II model, but again it was unsuccessful.

After the Bell monopoly broke up, other companies entered the digital videophone marketplace, and Sony developed Teleface in 1987 (Japan only) while Mitsubishi developed Visitel LU-500-0 in 1968. They were still too difficult to use, and were unsuccessful. In 1992, AT & T developed the VideoPhone 2500 but it was expensive and limited to calling other VideoPhone owners. In the mid-1990s, higher bandwidth ISDN phone lines were available and MCI as well as The British Telecom Presence created videophone devices. However, they were still expensive.

In 1994, Connectix developed the first webcam, the QuickCam, and videoconferencing software was used to conduct videophone calls in the mid-1990s. In 1996 Panasonic came up with the“the world’s first cordless videophone” used in Japan according to Popular Mechanics. In 1999, we saw the advent of more videophones such as the Kyocera VP-210, and in 2003,  the Sony Ericsson Z1010 and the NEC e606  with video calling services. However, the market was not ready to adopt these mobile videophones.

By the mid-2000s, video chats became popular due to a variety of factors, primarily the cost. Hardware, software and the Instant Messaging networks were free or cheap, and more people were able use video chats, particularly the younger generation.  In 2005, Skype began offering video chats. Vlogs or Video Logs or Video Blogs became popular after 2005. By the late 2000s, businesses used dedicated IP videophone devices such as the 2007 Nortel 1535 and the 2008 D-Link DVC-3000.

The image is from Sorenson. TTY relay services developed to assist Deaf and hearing users in making phone calls. The Deaf person calls an operator and the operator signs to the deaf person and voices for the hearing person. In 2002, videophone services developed for the Deaf population.  Sorenson created the VP-100® videophone and offered video relay services in 2003. Videophone booths were distributed in 2004. Video relay services centers opened up across the U.S. in 2005.  ntouch VP, ntouch PC, and ntouch Mobile, were introduced in 2011. ntouch for Mac and ntouch Tablet were developed in 2012. The  myPhone feature allows multiple ntouch accounts to be linked with one number in 2013. Other companies such as Purple, ZVRS, and Convo, provided similar services.Image above courtesy of Sorenson.

In 2020, Sorenson has added Wavello, a service that allows the hearing person who is a non-signer to be in videophone call by registering his number and downloading an app. This way, the interpreter, the hearing person, and the Deaf person can see each other. Only the Deaf person can initiate a Wavello call at this time.

After 2010, Sprint’s EVO 4G and iPhone 4 offered video smart phones with touchscreens, front-facing cameras for video calls. Tablets such as iPads are also popular with Deaf consumers. 

Check out CSD's Connect Direct, an innovative ASL call center that can be implemented to improve customer service to DHH people. This center uses Deaf ASL users and helps to save time, rather than going through the videophone relay service. Google, Comcast, and Square Glow are some of the companies using this ASL Now service.

If you are interested in the interpreting aspects of these technologies, check out the Interpreting Journals page.

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