Remember when Atari was the hottest company in America? Almost four years ago, the Warner Communications subsidiary was pulling in a couple of billion bucks a year. Atari dominated the home-computer and video-games industries with a smirk and a swagger.
Obese with arrogance, the company leaked word of a new division called "AtariTel" that would launch it into the lucrative telephone business. Frenzied speculation centered on a videophone that would let users play long-distance Atari video games with each other; or maybe a "smart" phone that could run household appliances.
The world was going to be taken by storm by a mysterious "Project Falcon." (All the projects in AtariTel were named for birds: Project Pigeon, Project Squab, Project Rock Cornish Game Hen -- I'm kidding, I'm kidding! -- but Atari really did name its efforts for birds.)
Alas, instead of taking the world by storm, Atari was swept into the black hole of catastrophe. Now, it is in the nimble clutches of former Commodore chief Jack Tramiel.
But what of AtariTel? Whatever happened to the mysterious Project Falcon?
Falcon never flew -- but AtariTel's "Project Eagle" is alive and well and is now known as Luma, a picturephone-like device that retails for $1,450.
Like something out of the Jetsons cartoon, the Luma lets you "see" who you're talking to (assuming they also have a Luma).
It's not a Bell Telephone Picturephone that lets you see every wrinkle, pimple and motion in real time, but it's not bad. Indeed, it stands a better chance for success than the bandwidth-greedy and ultraexpensive Picturephone service did. (Picturephone cost AT&T millions and was a failure on the order of the Edsel.)
At eight pounds, the portable Luma sends still-frame, black-and-white images over regular phone lines in one to five seconds; the image is displayed on a three-inch diagonal screen. You can split the screen to display an image of the caller and an image that's been sent.
You can even purchase a printer that lets you make a hard copy of what's on the screen.
Who makes this product of old-fashioned Silicon Valley ingenuity?
Why, the Japanese. Luma Telecom, in Santa Clara, Calif., is now a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Electric America. Clearly, this multibillion-dollar conglomerate is onto something here.
There's a wealth of potential applications of this videophone technology. A news photographer can send photos to the newsroom Luma; an engineer can quickly transmit a chart; the police can quickly send a "missing persons" photo, etc.
Unfortunately, the Luma's resolution isn't sufficient to transmit a readable document -- something I consider to be close to a crippling disadvantage. It's like being condemned to see the pictures in a magazine without being able to read the copy.
The Luma folks say this isn't a drawback and that facsimile capability isn't what they were trying to do. While I agree that a picture is worth a thousand words, you still need words. This inability to transmit documents would be comparable to selling a personal computer that couldn't run a spreadsheet. If Luma could send text, it would be a truly great machine: Now, it's just pretty good.
On the other hand, picture the Luma as an adjunct to your PC. You can send spreadsheets, text, etc., through a modem hooked through Luma's phone line, then toggle to its picture mode to transmit -- or receive -- photos or diagrams or a view of the person on the other end of the line. Your desktop becomes an information-rich conduit of a variety of data and information. Business people who need to exchange photos and data constantly with key clients or suppliers would do well to have access to this sort of machine.
However, I'm not ecstatic about the $1,450 price tag. While many businesses can, will and should be able to afford Lumas (you need at least two, remember?); they're not exactly priced for the consumer market. I wouldn't be surprised, though, to see a dramatically cheaper version of the Luma emerge in the next 12 to 18 months, should the original Luma be moderately successful.
Still, it's nice to see a truly intriguing product come into the market. The odds are that the Japanese will stick with Luma a while because it has the potential to create the video counterpart of what the phone systems of the world have achieved for voice.