The attack on Afghanistan has pushed yet another Cool Toy I Can't Afford (tm) to the forefront of American media. The videophone, which CNN is proudly announcing each time they use it, is a further refinement of the roving reporter's toolkit.

The videophone doesn't actually have a camera in it; it's really just a satellite uplink station. It's built into a ruggedized equipment case about the size of a double-thick briefcase. When open, a small TFT screen (for monitoring and control) is displayed, along with a telephone handset and a series of input/output jacks. The enterprising reporter takes a feed from his videocamera (or portable editing deck, or Powerbook, or MiniDV cam, etc.) and plugs it into the appropriate jack on the front. Then, he or she picks up the telephone and dials a telephone number back at home base (for CNN, the number was an ISDN number somewhere in New Jersey...looks like Team Banzai has been at it again...). The call is sent from the box directly to a satellite, from whence it is forwarded on to its destination. The ISDN link that results can transmit something like 112 Kbps or twice the speed of a 56K modem (approximately!). The videophone unit contains codecs that compress the video on the fly, squeezing it into whatever pixelated form will fit through the narrow pipe of the ISDN.

While the quality leaves something to be desired, especially if the video contains scenes with lots of movement, this does enable any reporter anywhere on the planet to drop the thing down, dial and submit live video and audio to the folks back home. A voice channel runs back to the videophone so that the correspondent can coordinate with base, or converse on-air with anchors. The whole thing runs off either internal rechargeable batteries or the bandolier of Li-Polymers the cameraman is likely toting anyway.

The videophone was first used in actual broadcasting (I think) during the U.S.S. Cole incident, when one reporting team had one in use. Immediately after that, the manufacturers sold twice as many as they'd sold in sum so far within the space of a week. At around $15,000 US total for the unit, they are a remarkably cheap piece of field gear.

Now, if I wasn't too lazy to get my shiftless ass down to Antarctica, I could use one of those to talk to penguins...

know, I know, you wanted to know where to get one like The Jetsons had. I dunno, but there are some promising looking ones using linux coming out. Troll slashdot for a while, you'll see them...Or, of course, you could spend serious lettuce and buy a PictureTel. But then you'd only be able to talk to big faceless entities like The RAND Corporation and General Electric.

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