Summer Award Dispatches: KC Forcier

30 Jul, 2015

Summer Award Dispatches: KC Forcier

This year, the BCNM awarded five new media graduate students with summer fellowships to help support their dissertation research and writing. Here's what KC Forcier gained from the experience!

I’m on the road the summer, visiting archives in pursuit of the untold history of the videophone. The idea of a “visual telephone” has long captured popular imagination, and indeed there have been many functional models released since as early as the 1930s. Yet, despite much hype at the time of each model’s release, this technology was generally considered a failure until the Internet-based versions developed in the twenty-first century. My hope is that an investigation into the history of this “failed” technology will offer insights into the less-known backstory of a now ubiquitous mode of moving image culture.

One of the themes I am pursuing with this research relates to media and embodiment. I was particularly curious to see if I can uncover what engineers and focus groups were thinking about the placement of the camera as it relates to eye contact. While most of the models I’ve looked at so far feature a camera placed just above the screen (a schematic similar to what we are today familiar with in laptops and phones) I was fortunate last week to come across one mysterious prototype (probably from the early 1990s) at British Telecom’s archives that placed the camera directly behind the screen. Some strategically arranged mirrors made it possible for the interlocutors to look directly into one another’s eyes. (The system, called “Eye-to-eye Conferencing,” reminded me somewhat of Errol Morris’ Interrotron). I have also found images of a prototype for a 3-D videophone that appeared to use a similar system of camera placement.

One of the more surprising discoveries I’ve made relating to the body and the videophone was that models developed in the 1970s featured an “In-View Indicator” – a red light that would go on if the user moved too far out of frame. This was apparently a source of much frustration to focus group respondents, who also found it annoying to have to keep the body stationary at a precise distance from the camera in order to remain in focus. As I continue with this research, I’m curious to pursue this tension between the greater freedom allowed by the videophone (which enabled communication across long distances, and one’s “presence” to appear in a far-off location) and the immobilization of the body.