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Video Relay Service

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A Video Interpreter sign used at locations offering VRS or VRI services.
A Video Interpreter sign used at locations offering VRS or VRI services.

A Video Relay Service (VRS) is a videotelecommunication service that allows deaf, hard of hearing and speech-impaired (D-HOH-SI) individuals to communicate over videophones (and similar technologies) with hearing people in real-time, via a Sign language interpreter.

A similar video interpreting service called Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) is conducted through a different organization often called a 'Video Interpreting Service Provider' (VISP).[1] VRS is a newer form of telecommunication service to the D-HOH-SI community, which had, in the United States, started earlier in 1974 using a simpler non-video technology called Telecommunications Relay Service, also known as 'TRS', or simply as 'Relay Service'.

VRS services have become well developed in the United States since the first decade of the 2000's. With the exception of Sweden, VRS has been provided in Europe for only a few years. Most European countries still lack the legislation or the financing for large-scale VRS services, and for also providing the necessary telecommunication equipment to deaf users. Germany and the Nordic countries are among the other leaders in Europe.

Contents

Telecommunications facilitated signing

One of the first demonstrations of the ability for telecommunications to help sign language users communicate with each other occurred when AT&T's videophone (trademarked as the 'Picturephone') was introduced to the public at the 1964 New York World's Fair –two deaf users were able to freely communicate with each other between the fair and another city.[2] Various other organizations have also conducted research on signing via videotelephony.

[[Image:Deaf or HoH person at his workplace using a Video Relay Service to communicate with a hearing person via a Video Interpreter and sign language SVCC 2007 Brigitte SLI + Mark.jpg|thumb|300px|left|A deaf or hard-of-hearing person at his workplace using a VRS to communicate with a hearing person in London.</br>Courtesy: SignVideo]]

Using such video equipment, the deaf, hard-of-hearing and speech-impaired can communicate between themselves and with hearing individuals using sign language. The United States and several other countries compensate companies to provide 'Video Relay Services' (VRS). Telecommunication equipment can be used to talk to others via a sign language interpreter, who uses a conventional telephone at the same time to communicate with the deaf person's party. Video equipment is also used to do on-site sign language translation via Video Remote Interpreting (VRI). The relative low cost and widespread availability of 3G mobile phone technology with video calling capabilities have given deaf and speech-impaired users a greater ability to communicate with the same ease as others. Some wireless operators have even started free sign language gateways.

Sign language interpretation services via VRS or by VRI are useful in the present-day where one of the parties is deaf, hard of hearing or speech-impaired. In such cases the interpretation flow is normally within the same principal language, such as French Sign Language (FSL) to spoken French, Spanish Sign Language (SSL) to spoken Spanish, British Sign Language (BSL) to spoken English, and American Sign Language (ASL) also to spoken English (since BSL and ASL are completely distinct), etc....

Multilingual Sign language interpreters, who can also translate as well across principal languages (such as to and from SSL, to and from spoken English), are also available, albeit less frequently. Such activities involve considerable effort on the part of the translator, since sign languages are distinct natural languages with their own construction, semantics and syntax, different from the aural version of the same principal language.

[[File:A Video Relay Service session helping a Deaf person communicate with a hearing person via a Video Interpreter (sign language interpreter) and a videophone DSC 0073.JPG|thumb|right|300px|A Video Interpreter (V.I.) assisting an on-screen client. Courtesy: SignVideoTemplate:Commonsimages]]

With video interpreting, sign language interpreters work remotely with live video and audio feeds, so that the interpreter can see the deaf or mute party, and converse with the hearing party, and vice versa. Much like telephone interpreting, video interpreting can be used for situations in which no on-site interpreters are available. However, video interpreting cannot be used for situations in which all parties are speaking via telephone alone. VRI and VRS interpretation requires all parties to have the necessary equipment. Some advanced equipment enables interpreters to remotely control the video camera, in order to zoom in and out or to point the camera toward the party that is signing.

Further information: Sign language, and Sign language interpreting


VRS deployment worldwide

Canada

Canada's regulatory Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) issued a policy order on 21 July 2009 requiring Canadian telecommunication, wireless service, and VoIP providers to implement IP-based video relay services by 21 July 2010,[3][4] its first such services. According to deaf-community organizations Canada has lagged frustratingly far behind its neighbour, the United States, in respect to video relay service for the deaf and speech-impaired.[5]

Denmark

Denmark's video relay service is currently provided by TegnKom, and only to deaf people at their workplace.

France

There are three VRS's in France. Viable France was established in 2008 to provide VRS and VRI service in France. France has legislated into a law the establishment of three VRS call centres to serve deaf and hard-of-hearing French consumers. A distinction of Viable France is the sales and distribution of its own videophone product that was fully developed and engineered by the deaf engineers at Viable, Inc.

VisiO08 is a set of services designed by WebSourd. On the phone, in interview or in meeting, VisiO08 enables deaf, hard of hearing and hearing people to communicate in sign language, spoken language and writing.

Tadeo was the first communication platform created used between hearing, deaf and hard of hearing persons in a professional environment; it offers a French Sign Language interpretation service, in Cued Speech, and live Transcription, remotely and real-time.

Germany

Tess and TeleSign are two VRS providers in Germany. Tess was awarded the contract for providing the national text and video relay. Users contribute with a limited monthly subscription rates, while TeleSign is pay-per-use. Both rely heavily on grant funds awarded to the deaf employees by the integration agency.

Tess has won the contract for providing video and text relay services in Germany, awarded by the Telecom Regulator. Funds are provided by all telecom operators, who pay into a national fund.

Norway

NAV, which is Norway's national insurance company, provides the national relay service for Norway. The service started in 2008, and its usage is increasing.

Sweden

Sweden was the first country in the world to implement a public VRS fully subsidized by the government. The service started as a pilot project in 1996 for ISDN videophones, but started to offer SIP-based services in 2003. Currently the Swedish video relay service is the largest in Europe with an average of 135,000 calls every year.

There is one national service for the country, which is procured by bids to the National Telecom and Postal Agency (PTS) every four years. Customers may download a video software application from the service provider, but more often the government provides the deaf community with videophones. These are also subsidized through the Swedish tax system.

United Kingdom

A person at her workplace using the UK's SignVideo Relay Service, communicating with a hearing person via a Video Interpreter (V.I.) and use of sign language.</br>Courtesy: SignVideo
A person at her workplace using the UK's SignVideo Relay Service, communicating with a hearing person via a Video Interpreter (V.I.) and use of sign language.</br>Courtesy: SignVideo

Significan't (UK) Ltd, a deaf and sign language led social enterprise, was the first to establish an IP Video Relay Service in 2004 in London. SignVideo Contact Centre, which employ only qualified and registered sign language interpreters and which processed its 10,000th video call in 2006, secured national contracts with Access to Work and the National Health Services to provide Video Remote Interpreting services throughout the UK. In 2010 Significan't introduced the iSignVideo range of videophones and a web-based video calling service, the SignVideo SV2.

United States

In the United States, VRS services have been regulated by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) since 2002.

Support for initial trials in State of Texas

Ed Bosson of the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) envisioned deaf people communicating with videophones more than 10 years before the FCC began reiumbursing for it. Bosson contacted Mark Seeger of Sprint Relay and discussed the possibilities. Seeger then contacted Sprint technicians to see if the proposal was feasible, and then suggested that Bosson bring the idea to Texas' PUC.

It took Bosson considerable time to convince the Texas PUC and to enlist help from a lawyer in interpreting. He first convinced his supervisor and then, one-by-one, the PUC Commissioners that video relay should become a part of statewide Telecom Relay Service offering. Bosson was authorized to manage the first video relay service trials, and Sprint became the first service provider to conduct the Texas Video Relay Service tests. Bosson would later receive national awards from Smithsonian Computerworld and TDI for his work with VRS.

Initial Texas trials

In 1995, the first trial was run by Sprint in Austin, Texas and was limited to four public call centers.

The second trial occurred in 1997 and served ten cities in Texas. At that point, Sprint and Hanwave Interpreting partnered to provide service. Jon Hodson of Sorenson Communications worked with Ed Bosson during the early stages and provided video conferencing software during the VRS trial in Texas. (At this point the service was called "Video Relay Interpreting" or VRI, which a name that now refers to Video Remote Interpreting. Linda Nelson has been credited with changing the term from VRI to VRS.) Later, Hanwave Interpreting Service was bought by Communication Service for the Deaf, and Sprint expanded their relay subcontract to include VRS services in addition to the established TRS services.

In 2002 Washington State and Texas tested a web based VRS, with CSDVRS providing VRS services via the Internet to State of Washington.

Implementation across the United States

In 2000, VRS officially became available throughout the State of Texas. In 2002, the FCC allowed for the reimbursement of interstate VRS providers via an interstate TRS fund administration, making the United States the second country after Sweden to federally subsidize VRS nationwide.

U.S. VRS regulation

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the regulatory body for VRS in the United States. In addition to overseeing VRS, the FCC also oversees Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS), from which the VRS regulatory framework has evolved. The FCC oversees TRS and VRS as a result of their mandate in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) to facilitate the provisions equal access to individuals with disabilities over the telephone network.

Funding for VRS is provided via the Interstate Telecommunications Relay Fund, which was created by the FCC, originally to fund TRS services. Funding for the TRS comes from a tax on the revenue from all telecommunications companies operating in the US. The tax on revenue is set by the FCC yearly and has been steadily increasing as the number of VRS minutes continues to climb. For 2007 the tax is 7.2/100ths of a penny per dollar of revenue, up from 3.8/100th of a penny in 2000. The current revenue tax of .0072 is expected to generate $553 million against telecommunications industry revenue of $76.8 billion. The fund is managed by National Exchange Carrier Association (NECA), which also administers the much larger Universal Service Fund and publishes the reimbursement rates paid to providers.

In addition to regulating the funding of VRS, the FCC regulates the standards that VRS companies and their employees must follow in handling calls. These regulations ensure that VRS calls are handled appropriately and ethically.

The U.S. FCC-issued rulings include:

  • The time it takes an interpreter to answer an incoming VRS call. As of July 1, 2006, VRS providers must answer 80% of calls within two and a half minutes. Starting on January 1, 2007 VRS providers must answer 80% of calls within two minutes;
  • as of January 1, 2006, all VRS providers are required to provide service 24 hours a day, seven days a week;
  • reimbursement of VRS Video Mail: if a Hearing person calls a sign language user, but there is no answer, the VI signs a message and delivers it to the sign language user's e-mail, similar to an answering machine. Previously this service was not reimbursed and the cost was absorbed by the VRS provider;
  • VRS providers are not permitted to “call back” when a customer hangs up before a VRS call is placed;
  • VRS providers must only process calls that either originate or terminate in the US or its territories. For example, a person in Canada may use a VRS service in the United States to call a person in the United States, but not another person in Canada.

It is important to understand that Video Relay is not government funded. It is not an appropriation and it is not a tax. Each telephone company is required to make their services accessible to individuals with disabilities. This has been defined to be relay in the various forms (Traditional, VRS, STS, IP Relay, et. al). Each common carrier contributes 0.01137% of their telephone service revenue. They do this because not all common carriers provide relay individually. There had to be a way to pay those that provided relay for those that did not, therefore the interstate relay fund started. Stating the contribution factor in a different way; it is one thousand one hundred thirty seven hundred thousandths of one percent. You would not be able to see the penny if sliced to the proportion a private telephone company contributes.

Only a handful of telephone companies have opted to provide relay themselves. Other telephone companies have the same opportunity, instead they have chosen a group purchasing concept. The fund collects a % contribution from all telephone companies; those carriers providing relay are paid based on minutes provided. They offer relay for themselves and every other telephone company. The goal being to recoup their own contribution & recover costs of providing relay for everyone else.

The FCC & the contractor responsible for administration of the fund, NECA, serve as regulator of standards of relay service and as steward of the fund. The 2009-2010 fund filing, submitted May 1, 2009, contains proposed provider payment formulas, fund size estimate and carrier contribution factor for the period July 2009 through June 2010. The filing proposes a fund size of $891.0 Million and a carrier contribution factor of 0.01137. The fund pays for several forms of relay, not just video relay. Included is captioned telephone, speech to speech and voice carry over. These services are vital today and will become even more so in the near future. The veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will experience greater numbers of hearing loss proportionally. Those citizens will not know Sign Language as they will be late-deafened. The veterans may also face a greater number of other types of disabilities which may effect speech as well. Someone who is late-deafened primarily uses captioned telephone and voice carry over.

The Video Relay service is in and of itself a vital tool in today's workplace for Deaf and hard-of-hearing citizens. A CPA who is Deaf stated that VRS was key to maintaining his career status because clients did not have to deal with antiquated text based services. While it may seem that deaf people are getting some "high tech service", the callers on the other end who are hearing are also benefiting from the service. Today, unemployment benefits are verified via telephone touch-tone systems or voice recognition. These are for the most part not accessible via traditional text relay services. The necessity for more technological forms of relay is a function of the greater society that we all are a part of, nothing more.

2005 U.S. FCC "Certification Program"

On December 12, 2005, the Commission released an order adopting new rules permitting carriers desiring to offer IP Relay and VRS services and receive payment from the Fund to seek certification as a provider eligible for compensation from the Fund.[6] The record reflects that other entities that desire to offer VRS have been unable to join a certified state program.[7]

(i) a description of the forms of TRS to be provided (i.e., VRS, IP Relay and/or IP CTS); (ii) a description of how the provider will meet all non-waived mandatory minimum standards applicable to each form of TRS offered; (iii) a description of the provider’s procedures for ensuring compliance with all applicable TRS rules; (iv) a description of the provider’s complaint procedures; (v) a narrative describing any areas in which the provider’s service will differ from the applicable mandatory minimum standards; (vi) a narrative establishing that services that differ from the mandatory minimum standards do not violate applicable mandatory minimum standards; (vii) demonstration of status as a common carrier; and (viii) a statement that the provider will file annual compliance reports demonstrating continued compliance with these rules.

The rules further provide that after review of the submitted documentation, the Commission shall certify that the provider of IP Relay, VRS and IP CTS is eligible for compensation from the Fund if the Commission determines that the certification documentation:

(i) establishes that the provision of IP Relay, VRS and IP CTS ... will meet or exceed all non-waived operational, technical, and functional minimum standards contained in § 64.604; (ii) establishes that the IP Relay, VRS and IP CTS... provider makes available adequate procedures and remedies for ensuring compliance with the requirements of this section and the mandatory minimum standards contained in § 64.604, including that it makes available for its users informational materials on complaint procedures sufficient for users to know the proper procedures for filing complaints; and (iii) where its service differs from the mandatory minimum standards contained in § 64.604, the IP Relay, VRS and IP CTS ... provider establishes that its service does not violate applicable mandatory minimum standards.

As of 2009 there have been six providers certified becoming eligible for reimbursement from the TRS fund under the rules advocated for by Daryl Crouse and supported by others in the industry.

Issues in U.S. VRS administration

  • Numbering standardization competing VRS providers have incompatible numbering schemes.
  • Interconnection between the IP-based videophone network and the worldwide telephone network.
  • VRS providers encounter difficulties routing 911 calls to the appropriate Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). When a VRS user dials 911, the call is first delivered to the VRS, as with any other call placed. However, when the VRS interpreter attempts to connect with the user’s local PSAP, the call is instead connected to the PSAP that services the VRS provider’s location. Additionally, the information displayed at the PSAP will be that of the VRS provider, not the VRS user.
    In order to route emergency calls and accurate information to the appropriate PSAP, VRS providers can send the call information to a national call-routing service. This service determines the appropriate local PSAP for the VRS user and delivers the VRS interpreter’s 911 call accordingly. The VRS user can then communicate with the PSAP dispatcher via the VRS interpreter, in order to receive the appropriate emergency services.[8] The European Union improves access to emergency services 112 for people with disabilities. The REACH112 project intends to implement a 12-month pilot in Sweden, UK, The Netherlands, France and Spain allowing disabled users to communicate at a distance with each other and directly with the emergency services.
  • The VRS industry is under investigation by the FCC, U.S. Postal Inspection Service and FBI for alleged fraudulent activities meant to "manufacture" minutes. The FBI raided the offices of several VRS providers in June 2009 and consequently issued warrants and indictments for fraud[9]. The FCC OIG office presented at the RID conference in Philadelphia alerting the field to the problem and urging all those involved to no longer tolerate and such activity by reporting it to the FCC.Template:Citation needed
  • On November 19, 2009, the FBI unsealed indictments against 26 people charged with engaging in a scheme to steal millions of dollars from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Video Relay Service (VRS) program. Arrests were made the same day by FBI agents and Postal Inspectors in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, and Maryland and were the result of a joint FBI, U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), and FCC Office of Inspector General (FCC-OIG) investigation into a nationwide scheme to defraud the FCC’s VRS program.
    The indictments charged the owners, employees and contractors of several companies with engaging in a scheme to defraud the FCC’s VRS program:[10]
    • Viable Communications Inc., of Rockville, Maryland
    • Master Communications LLC, of Las Vegas
    • KL Communications LLC, of Phoenix
    • Mascom LLC of Austin, Texas
    • Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Interpreting Services Inc. (DHIS), of New York and New Jersey
    • Innovative Communication Services for the Deaf
    • Tamara Frankel, Robert Rubeck, Benjamin Pena of Arizona

Video Relay Service providers

France

VRS Provider IP Address/Phone number for VP or others Phone Number for Hearing
VisiO08 visio08.com
VIABLE France viable.fr
TADEO tadeo.fr (+33) 1 55 97 00 00

United Kingdom

VRS Provider IP Address/Phone number for VP or others Phone Number for Hearing
Significan't SignVideo (+44) 208 463 1138

United States

VRS Provider IP Address/Phone number for VP or others Phone Number for Hearing
258 Communications Inc - http://258vrs.com 258VRS.TV 862-579-2957
AT&T, Inc. - http://attvrs.com attvrs.tv
Birnbaum Interpreting Services - http://bisvrs.com BISVRS.tv
callVRS - http://callvrs.org/ callvrs.info OR trivrs.info for VRS en Español 877-241-1411
Communication Access for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc. - http://cacvrs.org xvrs.tv
Convo - http://convorelay.com convorelay.tv
Federal VRS - http://www.myfedvrs.us myfedvrs.tv OR espanol.myfedvrs.tv (Español) 877-709-5797
Gracias VRS - http://graciasvrs.com graciasvrs.tv
Hawk Relay - http://hawkrelay.com hawkrelay.tv
InterWest Relay - http://iwrelay.com/ iwrelay.tv 866-258-1163
LifeLinks VRS - http://www.lifelinks.net llvrs.tv (English) OR llspanish.tv (Español VRS) 888-744-6526
Nordia, Inc. (Nordia VRS) - http://www.myrelay.com myrelay.tv
PAH Relay - http://www.pahrelay.com pahrelay.tv
PowerVRS - http://www.powervrs.com VP: powervrs.tv or 866-256-0720 IChat/AIM: PowerVRS 866-256-0720
Pure VRS - http://purevrs.com purevrs.tv OR puravrs.tv 877-839-2827
Purple Communications, Inc. - http://purple.us purple.tv/espanol.purple.tv (Espanol)/PurpleVRSim (ichat)
Say-Hey, Inc. - http://say-hey.com say-hey.tv
Snap Telecommunications, Inc. - http://snapvrs.com call.snapvrs.com 888-949-7627
Sorenson VRS - http://sorensonvrs.com call.svrs.tv OR rapidovrs.tv (Espanol de su VP 200) 866-327-8877
Sprint Nextel, Corp. - http://sprintvrs.com sprintvrs.tv
URrelay Inc - http://urrelay.com urrelay.tv VRS
Viable, Inc. - http://viable.net viablevrs.tv & sp.viablevrs.tv (VRS en Español)
ZVRS, LLC - http://zvrs.com zvrs.tv OR sp.zvrs.tv for VRS en Español 888-888-1116 (also for VPs)

Technical details

Typical calling procedure in the United States

Normally:

  1. An individual who communicates by American Sign Language (ASL), or another mode of manual communication, such as Signing Exact English, contact signing (Pidgin Signed English), Cued Speech, or Linguistics of Visual English, uses a videophone or other video device, such as a webcam, to connect via broadband Internet to a Video Relay Service;
  2. the caller is routed to a Sign language interpreter, known as a Video Interpreter (VI). The VI is in front of a camera or videophone;
  3. the video user gives the VI a voice number to dial, as well as any special dialing instructions;
  4. the VI places the call and interprets as a neutral, non-participating third party. Anything that the audio user says is signed to the video user, and anything signed by the video user is spoken to the audio user;
  5. once the call is over, the caller can make another call(s) or hang up with the interpreter;
  6. the company that provides the interpreter services, will then submits billings to the FCC.

People with normal hearing can also contact a deaf, hard-of-hearing, or speech-disabled person via VRS. To initiate a call, a hearing person calls a VRS and connects to a video interpreter who then contacts the video user.

Some VRS services also offer:

  • Voice Carry Over: The video user may use his/her own voice instead of the interpreter speaking;
  • Hearing Carry Over: the video user may listen for him/herself instead of relying on the interpreter;
  • Language Preference: The video user requests that the interpreter use American Sign Language;
  • the ability to connect to a sign language interpreter who can interpret into another language, such as Spanish.

Videotelephony descriptive names & terminology

Template:Commonsimages

The name videophone is not as standardized as its earlier counterpart, the telephone, resulting in a variety of names and terms being used worldwide, and even within the same region or country. Videophones are also known as videotelephones (or video telephones) and often by an early trademarked name "Picturephone", which was the world's first commercial videophone produced in volume. The compound name 'videophone' slowly entered into general use after 1950,[11] although 'video telephone' likely entered the lexicon earlier after 'video' was coined in 1935.[12]

Video Phone
Video Phone

A videophone is a telephone with a video screen, and is capable of full duplex (bi-directional) video and audio transmissions for communication between people in real-time. It is the earliest form of videotelephony.

At the dawn of the technology, videotelephony also included image phones which would exchange still images between units every few seconds over conventional Plain old telephone service(POTS)-type telephone lines, essentially the same as slow scan TV systems.

Currently videophones are particularly useful to the deaf and speech-impaired who can use them with sign language and with a video relay service, and also to those with mobility issues or those who are located in distant places and are in need of telemedical or tele-educational services.


Descriptive names and terminology

The name videophone is not as standardized as its earlier counterpart, the telephone, resulting in a variety of names and terms being used worldwide, and even within the same region or country. Videophones are also known as videotelephones (or video telephones) and often by an early trademarked name "Picturephone", which was the world's first commercial videophone produced in volume. The compound name 'videophone' slowly entered into general use after 1950,[11] although 'video telephone' likely entered the lexicon earlier after 'video' was coined in 1935.[12]

Videophone calls (or 'videocalls'), differ from videoconferencing in that they expect to serve individuals, not groups. However that distinction has becoming increasingly blurred with technology improvements such as increased bandwidth and sophisticated software clients that can allow for multiple parties on a call. In general everyday usage the term videoconferencing is now frequently used instead of videocall for point-to-point calls between two units. Both videophone calls and videoconferencing are also now commonly referred to as a 'video link'.

Webcams are popular, relatively low cost devices which can provide live video and audio streams via personal computers, and can be used with many for video calls.[13]

A videoconference system is generally higher cost than a videophone and deploys greater capabilities. A videoconference (also known as a videoteleconference) allows two or more locations to communicate via live, simultaneous two-way video and audio transmissions. This is often accomplished by the use of a multipoint control unit (a centralized distribution and call management system) or by a similar non-centralized multipoint capability embedded in each videoconferencing unit. Again, technology improvements have circumvented traditional definitions by allowing multiple party videoconferencing via web-based applications.[14][15][16]

Early history

Barely two years after the telephone was first patented in the United States, an early concept of a combined videophone/wide-screen television called a telephonoscope was conceptualized in the popular periodicals of the day. It was also mentioned in various early science fiction works such as Le Vingtième siècle: La vie électrique (The 20th Century: The Electrical Life) and other works written by Albert Robida, and was also sketched in various cartoons by George du Maurier as a fictional invention of Thomas Edision. One such sketch was published on December 9, 1878 in Punch magazine.[17][18][19] The term telectroscope was also used in 1878 by French writer and publisher Louis Figuier, to popularize an invention wrongly interpreted as real and incorrectly ascribed to Alexander Graham Bell.[20]


In April 1891, Alexander Graham Bell did actually record conceptual notes on an electrical radiophone, which discussed "....the possibility of seeing by electricity" using devices that employed tellurium or selenium imaging components.[21] Bell wrote, decades prior to the invention of the image dissector:

"Should it be found... [that the image sensor] is illuminated, then an apparatus might be constructed in which each piece of selenium is a mere speck, like the head of a small pin, the smaller the better. The darkened selenium should be placed in a cup-like receiver which can fit over the eye… Then, when the first selenium speck is presented to an illuminated object, it may be possible that the eye in the darkened receiver, should perceive, not merely light, but an image of the object… "[21]

Bell went on to later predict that: "...the day would come when the man at the telephone would be able to see the distant person to whom he was speaking."[22][23]

The compound name 'videophone' slowly entered into general usage after 1950,[11] although 'video telephone' likely entered the lexicon earlier after 'video' was coined in 1935.[12] Prior to that time there appeared to be no standard terms for 'video telephone', with expressions such as 'sight-sound television system' , 'visual radio' and nearly 20 others (in English) being used to describe the marriage of telegraph, telephone, television and radio technologies employed in early experiments.[24][25][26]

One technological precursor to the videophone was the teleostereograph machine developed by AT&T's Bell Labs in the 1920s, which was a forerunner of today's fax (facsimile) machines. By 1927 AT&T had created its earliest electro-mechanical videophone which operated at 18 frames per second and occupied half a room full of equipment cabinets.[27] An early U.S. test in 1927 had their then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover address an audience in New York City from Washington, D.C.; although the audio portion was two-way, the video portion was one-way with only those in New York being able to see Hoover.[26]

First public video telephone service

The world's first public video telephone service was developed by Dr. Georg Schubert and opened by the German Reichspost in 1936,[28][29][30] but which quickly closed in 1940 due to the WWII. In that service trial, video telephone lines linked Berlin to Nuremberg, Munich, and Hamburg, with terminals integrated within public telephone booths and transmitting at the same resolution as the first German TV sets, at 440 lines. The service was offered to the general public who had to simultaneously visit special post office videotelephone booths in their respective cities.

AT&T Picturephone

In the United States AT&T's Bell Labs conducted extensive research and development of videophones, leading to public demonstrations of its trademarked Picturephone product and service in the 1960s, including displays at the 1964 New York World's Fair.[2] The demonstration units usually used small oval housings on swivel stands, intended to stand on desks. Similar AT&T Picturephone units were also featured at the Telephone Association of Canada Pavilion (the 'Bell' Pavilion) at Expo 67, an International World's Fair held in Montreal, Canada in 1967.[2][31][32] Demonstration units were available at these fairs for the public to test, with fair-goers permitted to make videophone calls to volunteer recipients at other locations.

The United States would not see its first public video telephone booths until 1964, when AT&T installed their earliest commercial videophone unit, the Picturephone Mod I, in public booths in three cities: New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago.[27] Picturephone booths were set up in New York's Grand Central Station and elsewhere. With fanfare, Picturephones were also installed in offices of Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, and at other progressive companies. However the use of reservation time slots and their initial cost of US$16 per three minute call at public booths greatly limited their appeal to the point that they were discontinued by 1968.[22][27]

Unrelated difficulties at New York Telephone also slowed AT&T's efforts, and few customers signed up for the service in either city. A CNN report on 6 September 2001 stated that Picturephone service only had a total of 500 subscribers at its peak, and the service faded away in the 1970s. AT&T's initial Mod I and its upgraded Picturephone Mod II programs,, researched principally at its Bell Labs, spanned 15 years and consumed US$500 million, eventually meeting with commercial failure.[33] AT&T concluded that its early videophone was a "concept looking for a market" and discontinued its Picturephone service in the late 1970s.[33] The research and development programs conducted by Bell Labs were highly notable for the beyond-the-state-of-the-art results produced in materials science, advanced telecommunications, microelectronics and information technologies.

Color on AT&T's Picturephone was not employed with their early models. These Picturephone units packaged Plumbicon cameras and small CRT displays within their housings. The cameras were located atop their screens to help users see eye to eye. See this section for more information on Picturephone technology. Later generation display screens were larger than in the original demonstration units, approximately six inches (15 cm) square in a roughly cubical cabinet.

AT&T would then market its VideoPhone 2500 to the general public from 1992 to 1995 with prices starting at US$1,500 and later dropping to $1,000,[34] again with very little commercial success.

Other early devices: 1976–1999

The Lumaphone was developed and marketed by Atari and Mitsubishi in 1985. Similar to Bell Labs' very early image transfer phone of 1956, it could transmit still images every 3–5 seconds over analog plain old telephone service(POTS) lines, and could also be connected to a regular TV or monitor for improved teleconferencing. A larger video image was available by attaching its optional VisiTel LU-500 display.[35][36]

The Intellect was a neo- or prototype wireless videophone. It was developed in 1993 by inventor Daniel A. Henderson, and featured still image and non-live video clip transfers.[37][38] The pioneering system and device were designed to receive pictures and video data sent from an originator to a message center for transmission and display to a wireless device such as a cellular telephone.[39][40]

The Intellect was essentially a cell phone handset with a large black and white display that could show still images and video clips downloaded remotely from a computer via a wireless transmitter. The data transfer protocols pioneered in the Intellect design were later deployed with the common camera phones released in the early 2000s.[38] However, the complete integration of the cellular phone, digital camera and its wireless transmission infrastructure would take a few more years to complete. The prototype models were donated to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in 2007.[41][42]

General lack of public acceptance

Early [[AT&T]] Picturephones had few users, in part because the service was relatively expensive, approximately US$90 per month in 1974. However as modern technology reduced the costs to nominal (see: webcams), videophone calling continued to be used marginally. This contrasts to many early, overly optimistic views that videotelephony would become ubiquitous.

One reason may be that even today videophone calling is often a poor analog for direct face-to-face conversation. Videophone users also commonly look at the video screen and not at the video camera, preventing users from having direct eye-to-eye contact, as the video cameras are usually positioned away from the screen.

Another reason may be that people actually desire less fidelity in their communication, as evidenced by the popularity of written conversation (i.e. texting and instant messaging, which are commonly available on all video-enabled cell phones and webchat programs). Additionally, some people simply did not want to be seen at home—a videophone was viewed as an intrusion.

Although it could also be argued that for users who would benefit greatly from videophone services (e.g. members of a family living far apart and who may have a strong desire, but little opportunity for face-to-face conversations), costs are still largely prohibitive for mobile videophone calls: inexpensive solutions for such calls (such as on Hutchison 3's Skype enabled cell phones) only cover a handful of countries as of late 2008.

Current usage

The widest deployment of video telephony now occurs in mobile phones, as nearly all mobile phones supporting UMTS networks can work as videophones using their internal cameras, and are able to make video calls wirelessly to other UMTS users in the same country or internationally. As of the second quarter of 2007, there are over 131 million UMTS users (and hence potential videophone users), on 134 networks in 59 countries.

Videophones are increasingly used in the provision of telemedicine to the elderly and to those in remote locations, where the ease and convenience of quickly obtaining diagnostic and consultative medical services are readily apparent.[43] In one single instance quoted in 2006: "A nurse-led clinic at Letham has received positive feedback on a trial of a video-link which allowed 60 pensioners to be assessed by medics without travelling to a doctor's office or medical clinic."[43] A further improvement in telemedical services has been the development of new technology incorporated into special videophones to permit remote diagnostic services, such as blood sugar level, blood pressure and vital signs monitoring. Such units are capable of relaying both regular audiovideo plus medical data over either standard (POTS) telephone or newer broadband lines.[44]

Videotelephony has also been deployed in corporate teleconferencing, also available through the use of public access videoconferencing rooms.

Today the principles, if not the precise mechanisms of a videophone are employed by many users worldwide in the form of webcam videocalls using personal computers, with inexpensive webcams, microphones and free videocalling web client programs. Thus an activity that was disappointing as a separate service has found a niche as a minor feature in software products intended for other purposes.

A videophone can also be created by using an old or inexpensive computer and dedicating it to run as a video softphone. This shows that some users may want to use use conventional videophones, but are likely to trade ease of use for lower costs.

Some have argued that unless conventional videophones add considerable value at low cost, and as long as less expensive alternatives (such as webphones) are available, it will be unlikely that dedicated videophones will become popular.

Sign language communications via videotelephony

Main articles: Video Relay Service, a telecommunication service for deaf, hard-of-hearing and speech-impaired (mute) individuals communicating with hearing persons at a different location, and Video Remote Interpreting, used where deaf/hard-of-hearing/mute persons are in the same location as their hearing parties

One of the first demonstrations of the ability for telecommunications to help sign language users communicate with each other occurred when AT&T's videophone (trademarked as the 'Picturephone') was introduced to the public at the 1964 New York World's Fair –two deaf users were able to freely communicate with each other between the fair and another city.[25] Various other organizations have also conducted research on signing via videotelephony.

Using such video equipment, the deaf, hard-of-hearing and speech-impaired can communicate between themselves and with hearing individuals using sign language. The United States and several other countries compensate companies to provide 'Video Relay Services' (VRS). Telecommunication equipment can be used to talk to others via a sign language interpreter, who uses a conventional telephone at the same time to communicate with the deaf person's party. Video equipment is also used to do on-site sign language translation via Video Remote Interpreting (VRI). The relative low cost and widespread availability of 3G mobile phone technology with video calling capabilities have given deaf and speech-impaired users a greater ability to communicate with the same ease as others. Some wireless operators have even started free sign language gateways.

Sign language interpretation services via VRS or by VRI are useful in the present-day where one of the parties is deaf, hard-of-hearing or speech-impaired (mute). In such cases the interpretation flow is normally within the same principal language, such as French Sign Language (FSL) to spoken French, Spanish Sign Language (SSL) to spoken Spanish, British Sign Language (BSL) to spoken English, and American Sign Language (ASL) also to spoken English (since BSL and ASL are completely distinct), etc.... Multilingual sign language interpreters, who can also translate as well across principal languages (such as to and from SSL, to and from spoken English), are also available, albeit less frequently. Such activities involve considerable effort on the part of the translator, since sign languages are distinct natural languages with their own construction, semantics and syntax, different from the aural version of the same principal language.

With video interpreting, sign language interpreters work remotely with live video and audio feeds, so that the interpreter can see the deaf or mute party, and converse with the hearing party, and vice versa. Much like telephone interpreting, video interpreting can be used for situations in which no on-site interpreters are available. However, video interpreting cannot be used for situations in which all parties are speaking via telephone alone. VRI and VRS interpretation requires all parties to have the necessary equipment. Some advanced equipment enables interpreters to remotely control the video camera, in order to zoom in and out or to point the camera toward the party that is signing.


Technology

Bandwidth requirements

Videophones have historically employed a variety of transmission and reception bandwidths, which can be understood as data transmission speeds. The lower the transmission/reception bandwidth, the lower the data transfer rate, resulting in a more limited and poorer image quality. Data transfer rates and live video image quality are related, but are also subject to other factors such as data compression techniques. Some early videophones employed very low data transmission rates with a resulting sketchy video quality.

Broadband bandwidth is often called "high-speed", because it usually has a high rate of data transmission. In general, any connection of 256 kbit/s (0.256 Mbit/s) or greater is more concisely considered broadband Internet. The International Telecommunication Union Standardization Sector (ITU-T) recommendation I.113 has defined broadband as a transmission capacity at 1.5 to 2 Mbit/s. The United States Federal Communications Commission definition of broadband is 768 kbit/s (0.8 Mbit/s).

Currently, adequate video for some purposes becomes possible at data rates lower than the ITU-T broadband definition, with rates of 768 kbit/s and 384 kbit/s used for some video conferencing applications, and rates as low as 100 kbit per second used for videophones using H.264/MPEG-4 AVC compression protocols. The newer MPEG-4 video and audio compression format can deliver high-quality video at 2 Mbit/s, which is at the low end of cable modem and Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line(ADSL) broadband performance.

Picturephone technology

The Picturephone's video bandwidth was 1 MHz with a vertical scan rate of 30 Hz, horizontal scan rate of 8 kHz, and about 250 visible scan lines. The equipment included a Speakerphone hands free telephone, with an added box to control picture transmission. Each Picturephone line used three twisted pairs of ordinary telephone cable, two pairs for video and one for audio and signaling. Cable amplifiers were spaced about a mile apart (1.6 kilometres) with built-in six-band adjustable equalization filters. For distances of more than a few miles, the signal was digitized at 2 MHz and 3 bits per sample Differential Pulse Code Modulation(DPCM), and transmitted on a T-2 carrier.

The original Picturephone system used contemporary crossbar and multi-frequency operation. Lines and trunks were six wire, one pair each way for video and one pair two way for audio. MF address signaling on the audio pair was supplemented by a Video Supervisory Signal (VSS) looping around on the video quad to ensure continuity. More complex protocols were later adopted for conferencing.

To deploy Picturephone service new wideband crossbar switches were designed and installed into the Bell System's 5XB switch offices, this being the most widespread of the relatively modern kinds. Hundreds of technicians attended schools to learn to operate the Cable Equalizer Test Set and other equipment, and to install Picturephones.

AT&T later marketed the VideoPhone 2500 to the general public from 1992 to 1995. It was limited by analog phone line connection speeds of about 19 Kilobits per second, the video portion being 11,200 bits/s, and with a maximum frame rate of 10 frames per second, but typically much lower. The VideoPhone 2500 used proprietary technology protocols.

Call setup

Videoconferencing in the late 20th century was limited to the H.323 protocol (notably Cisco's Skinny Client Control Protocol(SCCP) implementation was an exception), but newer videophones often use Session Initiation Protocol(SIP), which is often easier to set up in home networking environments. H.323 is still used, but more commonly for business videoconferencing, while SIP is more commonly used in personal consumer videophones. A number of call-setup methods based on instant messaging protocols such as Skype also now provide video. The principal open systems SIP source is Counterpath Corp., which provides support for British Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, Sprint, Telmex, AT&T's Callvantage, and the unified communicator of Cisco and Verizon.

Another protocol used by videophones is H.324, which mixes call setup and video compression. Videophones that work on regular phone lines typically use H.324, but the bandwidth is limited by the modem to around 33 kbit/s, limiting the video quality and frame rate. A slightly modified version of H.324 called 3G-324M defined by 3GPP is also used by some cellphones that allow video calls, typically for use only in UMTS networks.

There is also H.320 standard, which specified technical requirements for narrow-band visual telephone systems and terminal equipment, typically for videoconferencing and videophone services. It applied mostly to dedicated circuit-based switched network (point-to-point) connections of moderate or high bandwidth, such as through the medium-bandwidth ISDN digital phone protocol or a fractionated high bandwidth T1 lines. Modern products based on H.320 standard usually support also H.323 standard.[45]


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Bibliography


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