Downtown Working

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November 3, 2003 // UPDATED 11:06 am - April 30, 2007
By: Elana Centor
Elana Centor

The 'underwear factor' vs. videophones After being subjected to much hype and filled with anticipation, my family attended the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. The theme: "Man in a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe." (Sound eerily like 2003?)

At 13, I was ready to be impressed. Two things from that fair accomplished the task: the excellent Belgian waffles and the PicturePhone.

The PicturePhone was part of The Bell Telephone System pavilion -- you could make a telephone call to a nearby booth and not only hear, but see the people you were talking to.

At the time, I figured PicturePhones would become part of our daily lives by 1966 -- at the latest. So did AT&T. It invested and lost about a billion dollars on the hi-tech product.

However, it appears the PicturePhone time may be upon us. A newer version is poised to become as common as voicemail, e-mail and fax -- if companies really want it.

With IP Telephony a business' phone system uses the same Internet Protocol (IP) that their computers rely on to surf the 'Net. Still considered in the early stages of technological acceptance, IP Telephony is being used in several local businesses.

There are three main reasons to use IP Telephony: it offers flexibility and cost-savings, and you can do some cool things with it.

People can forward their calls to home or even to an out-of-state location without being concerned about such nuisances as area codes or out-of-area charges. Office arrangements are easier, too. "With a traditional phone system, it costs about $125 just to move a phone from one office to another. With IP Telephony you just unplug the phone and plug it in the new location," explained Stuart, who works at a Downtown company that relies on IP Telephony.

Now for the really cool stuff -- the unified messaging system. All e-mails, faxes and voicemails come into one mailbox. So you can listen to your voicemail via the computer or, in turn, you can listen to a voice version of an e-mail on your mobile phone, and even respond to the e-mail via a voice message to be sent to the original sender.

Plus, when a call comes in, instead of just regular old caller ID, you can have a picture and notes of the caller pop up as you answer the phone.

The question is: are people ready for this?

People have a love/hate relationship with the concept of videophones -- which is probably why the 1964 PicturePhone never really took off. It's the "underwear factor." People want to be heard but not necessarily seen.

There is a certain aspect of talking on the telephone that people cherish: the ability to be visually anonymous. Call it phone games, but there is nothing quite like responding to a stupid question by making sure the tone of your voice is pleasant and charming while you simultaneously make hideous, obnoxious faces and gestures at the receiver/recipient.

I'll miss that.

On the brighter side, it will probably make me brush my teeth three times a day -- wouldn't want any leftover lunch particles stuck in my teeth to show up on the video screen. So while it may deprive me of my visual anonymity, my dental hygiene should improve greatly.

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