We've been hearing about the picture phone for 50 years, and were all excited by the prototype at the 1964 World's Fair, displayed right alongside other space-age wonders: DuPont's "Happy Plastic Family" wearing boots cobbled with Corfam synthetic leather, GM's gigantic atomic road-building robot and a house furnished entirely with Formica.
A scant five years later, the future went into production with the Bell System's launch of the Mod II Picturephone. This was expected to become a $5 billion business by the mid-'80s, but was aborted after only three years because of price resistance and a certain other mitigating factor:
Nobody wanted to be photographed talking on the phone. Because, absent preparation and sustained effort, we are most of us are pretty loathsome to behold.
EXPENSIVE AND COMPLICATED
So it will be interesting to watch, now that Futurama is more or less Now-arama, how goes the mojo for Ojo, the $800 video phone from Motorola. Unlike its primitive forebears, it produces high-resolution images and high quality sound. Like the relics of Past-a-rama, however, it is expensive, complicated (you have to wire it into your desktop broadband connection), and it shows your picture to callers.
This puts a great burden on advertising, which must somehow make the inherent hellishness of that proposition look like a must-have consumer benefit. It's like doing a campaign for diabetes.
Credit Wunderman, New York and Chicago, then, for crafting four Web-isode vignettes that make video phoning seem approximately attractive. One is about a dad talking to his daughter at college, accidentally discovering her tattoo. Another is a boyfriend proposing to his lady. A third is a kid telling Mommy about his Little League home run. The fourth-and best-is a young woman telling her travelin' man husband about a new addition to the family.
Her: I know we said we wanted to wait before we got a bigger house, and traveled.
Him: Are you saying what I think you're saying? I mean, you're not... We're not....
Her: The proud parents of ... Max! [She brandishes a terrier.] Honey, I think he has your smile.
Him: And my ears.
The old switcheroo, see? Never mind you could see the gag coming a mile away. And never mind the universally terrible acting performances. All of the `sodes offer a sweet little tug, like Kodak moments or the old AT&T long-distance commercials in which folks shared by phone when circumstances kept them apart. That possibility might seal the deal for early adopters who simply have to have every new gizmo, and maybe a few road warriors who want to smooch the kids goodnight face to face.
The reality is, though, that most phone conversations aren't about new puppies or first home runs; they're about can you pick me up at the airport and Pop-Pop has another gallstone and did you pay the damn Visa bill? No pictures needed, thank you.
Delighted as we are to see a digital ad campaign for a digital appliance, we think this is a product that's ahead of its time. And, like Corfam, always will be.
Review 2.5 stars
Location: New York and Chicago