The New York Times - Videophones Revisited, By Way Of Modem


Press Release

The New York Times - Videophones Revisited, By Way Of Modem


Published: February 19, 2004


IN the interest of performing high-tech research for this column, I selflessly watched "Jetsons: The Movie" with my two children last week. Let me tell you, it's a real laugh riot. Hovercraft traffic jams - hilarious! Three-course meal capsules ("You burned the toast") - what a hoot! And videophones on every desk - now that's comedy!


I mean, everyone knows that videophones are far-fetched. Plenty of people have tried NetMeeting software from Microsoft or the Beamer videophone screen from Vialta , for example, and discovered that ordinary dial-up phone lines were never intended to carry a video signal. By the time the software compresses your image enough to fit through a phone wire, you look like a Picasso viewed through textured bathroom-door glass.


But more than 30 percent of American homes now have much faster "pipes" coming into their homes: broadband Internet. In general, cable modems and D.S.L. boxes offer much greater capacity, enough to carry clean, convincing video. Apple exploited this feature, for example, with its $140 iSight camera, a pocketcam that clips onto a Macintosh screen for free, high-quality Internet video calls.


Now a company called Viseon ( has taken the next step by creating an actual video telephone called the VisiFone. It looks like a typical, not especially sleek office phone, with a tilting six-inch flat-panel screen on top. Actually, if you inspect the thing more closely, you'll see another telltale difference: there's nowhere to plug in a telephone wire. Instead, you're supposed to plug the VisiFone into your cable modem or D.S.L. box.


Now, "no computer needed" is supposed to be one of the VisiFone's chief virtues, but can anyone spot the Catch-22 here? Anyone? Anyone?


That's right: Who on earth has a cable modem but not a computer?


Put another way, it's much more likely that your VisiFone will be sharing your computer's Internet connection. And that means you'll probably be hooking the phone up to a router (a box that lets you share your broadband connection with multiple Macs or PC's), somewhere on your home or office network.

If you're a networking professional, this is no big deal. You simply assign the phone a static I.P. address, and then use the router's configuration page to open all ports , and of course plug in your subnet mask and gateway addresses.


If that's all Greek to you, though, you have to call Viseon to walk you through 15 minutes of setting up networking addresses, which most people will find terrifying. (The manual offers 12 pages of geek-speak on this topic alone. Trust me, you'll be calling the company.) When it comes to calculating the VisiFone's odds for success in the consumer marketplace, this is Strike One.


Once connected, the VisiFone is ready to go. All you have to do is dial the network, or Internet Protocol address - not the phone number - of your lucky video friend. (An I.P. address looks like The Internet, not the phone company, will carry your call. (The VisiFone has a phone book, but unfortunately, many I.P. addresses change from time to time, giving you a little black book that's almost always out of date.)


But here's Strike Two, otherwise known as the First Fax-Machine Conundrum. As the Ghostbusters would say, who you gonna call?


I placed calls to various Viseon employees in Dallas, and even one of its investors in New York. I also hooked up a second VisiFone at a neighbor's house to conduct, somewhat pointlessly, a video chat down the street.


If you have only one VisiFone, you have three alternatives. First, you can call Viseon's test line; it connects you to a VisiFone in Texas that's trained on a tacky Elvis Presley wall clock, its legs swaying back and forth like a pendulum. Second, it's technically possible to connect with somebody else whose videocam uses the so-called H.263 video protocol, like somebody using Microsoft NetMeeting. The people you call will see terrific video, but you'll see only the tiny, jerky output of their Webcams. Finally, the company says that the VisiFone can connect to corporate videoconferencing gear.