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Hole in Space - the Mother of All Video Chats

A Hole in Space LA-NY, 1980 – the mother of all video chats.

New technology enables new art forms, and artists Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz (K&S) began working with geostationary satellite links in 1977. Their first work was an experiment in remote dance and music. Video of dancers at The Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and an educational television center in California was transmitted to a central control studio where a composite was formed and sent back to monitors the dancers could see.

First day: “They’re in New York? I’m in LA, right?”

Their next project involved remote conversation rather than movement, and they called it “Hole in Space” (HiS). The conversation took place in November 1980 between people at two locations, a display window at the Broadway department store at the Century City mall in Los Angeles and a window in the foyer of the Avery Fisher Concert Hall at the Lincoln Center in New York.

They made three two-hour connections. The first day was unannounced—participants were curious passers-by who just stopped to see what was happening. They took the second day off, and some word of mouth had gotten out by the third day. There was also local news television coverage before the final day, so some people made plans to meet distant friends and relatives.

The sessions began at 5:30 Los Angeles time, so illumination was needed. They did not want to attract large crowds by lighting the participants. Instead, they relied on visible light from inside the venues augmented by infrared emitters near the bottoms of the windows.

The terminals consisted of cameras developed by Cohu Industries that were sensitive to both infrared and visible light. (You can see the effect of the heat-sensitive infrared radiation in the glowing cigarettes of some participants). The displays were RCA projection TVs with custom-made 12 by 12-foot vinyl screens. Connections to the satellite ground stations were over microwave links to a mountaintop near Los Angeles and the roof of a tall building in New York.

Third day: conveying emotion as well as content

Communication was provided by Western Union’s Westar satellites, which were typically used for things like the distribution of television programs and sporting events like the Los Angeles Lakers basketball games. Western Union provided three uninterruptible two-hour sessions.

Galloway says the geostationary satellite latency was not a problem (as it had been for dance), but feedback between the speakers and microphones was, so they had operators at each location manually toggling echo cancellation on and off. There was also someone interviewing people in the crowds during the sessions. At one point, a speaker failed in Los Angeles, and Rabinowitz had to run upstairs to borrow one from the store’s audio-visual sales department.

K&S became aware of terrestrial networking after HiS and in 1984 began their Electronic Cafe project, which supported conversations, remote collaborative drawing, and global New Year’s Eve “Telebrations.”

ThiS was done at a time when nearly all data was text (only upper-case if your terminal was a Teletype or keypunch machine). It was done the year Usenet began and was three years before TCP/IP replaced NCP on the ARPAnet, five years before the NSFNET was established, and eight years before we saw the first text-only version of the Web. (See links to these and other milestones here). K&S’s art pieces anticipated modern services like Zoom for meeting online and JackTrip for remote musical practice and performance.

Here are links to a short, narrated video, 4m 48s, and a longer video produced by K&S, 29m 45s.

I wish there were holes in space between Russia and Ukraine.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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