See who you talk to – What’s New?

See who you talk to – What’s New? – Phone Video Station

* Once again, the world of science fiction has intruded upon the commercial marketplace. All those spaceship control-room scenes with characters talking to other characters while their images appear on a video screen sort of fell into the realm of phasers and transporter beams until, all of a sudden, picture phones began cropping up on electronics store shelves. Perhaps the breakthrough should have been expected after seeing “Star Trek” Capt. James T. Kirk’s flip-top communicator emerge as the ubiquitous cell phones that no one seems able to step foot out of the house or office without.

Most of the first generation of belong able to see who you’re talking to has taken the form of a tiny window built into a cell phone. However, a much-more-satisfying approach is via the Beamer from Vialta, Inc., Fremont, Calif. Billed as a Phone Video Station, it is a 3 1/2″ LCD screen set into a sleek clear frame that stands neatly on a desktop, night table, kitchen counter, or anywhere else you might have a phone. (We are talking about an analog line in this case, since the Beamer will only work with a hard-wired phone. Cell phone users will have to settle for the aforesaid tiny built-in window.) The device plugs into the phone with an adapter, much like a stand-alone answering machine would, and into a wall outlet for power. In these days of multipaged, single-spaced instruction booklets, it’s a pleasure to report that installation takes mere minutes, without any special tools.

To view who is on the other end of the line, that party must also have a Beamer unit, so you’re restricted to those you have an ongoing relationship with–family, close friends, lovers, etc.–rather than being able to see every caller. There are three visual options: being able to see who you’re talking to; watching the video you are transmitting; or, using the picture-in-picture feature, showing both of the parties on the same screen. Should you be caught in a state of dishabille when the phone rings, you can utilize the video blocker option that will show a snapshot of you in a more-viewable mode instead, or simply not press the “start” button on your end. On the other hand, we’re sure that the exhibitionist/voyeur in most of us could come into play as well. In other words, the choice is yours as to how much you want to show and/or see. To assure that you don’t shock your maiden aunt, a caller ID display reveals the name and phone number of incoming callers before you pick up.

To avoid setting your hopes too high, be aware that this is still new technology. While you can adjust picture brightness and achieve smoother video motion at the turn of one of the buttons mounted on the unit, you are not gong to get HDTV-quality images. Still, it adds a fun element to otherwise ordinary phone calls and, when showing off a new baby to its grandparents halfway across the country, say, you’re not going to get any complaints.

The Beamer retails for a suggested $299 for a single unit and $499 for a two-pack, which you will need to invest in unless the other party already has one. Outside of the initial outlay, there is no additional cost from the phone company or other carrier since the device is an adjunct to, rather than a component of, your phone. (You can talk on a customary telephone basis to those who don’t have a video unit without disconnecting the Beamer.) For the nearest retail outlet, go online at

This symbol * indicates USA Today has tested a product for operating in full compliance with the manufacture’s specifications and to determine is performance as applicable to our reader’s need. Disadvantages, if any, also are reported. Although we cannot guarantee a product, we offer the starred designation as a guide to readers.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Society for the Advancement of Education

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