Video Calling Comes Home: Skype On TV?

Modern HDTVs are essentially small embedded computer systems. I was reminded of this fact when I recently purchased a TV for our bedroom. It’s a 32″ Samsung LCD-TV, and it makes little boot-up chimes just like a computer. TV’s are computers…that’s worth remembering.

Recently several large consumer electronics companies have launched new LCD HDTVs in partnership with Skype. This partnership leverages the fact that TVs are computers.

These new model LCD-TVs run an embedded version of the Skype client. When equipped with suitable media handling support (camera, microphone & possibly speakers) these TVs are purported to allow large screen point-to-point video calling via the Skype network.

While I’ve used Skype for years I use it primarily for IM with my coworkers in the UK. I’ve also used it for voice calling, but that’s less common. Finally, I rarely make video calls, even though I’ve also had many different webcams over the years. Apparently, I’m an unusual case as Skype claims that 34% of their call volume involve video.

There is a little magic required to make the Skype+HDTV solution workable. It comes in the form of the hardware support for Skype. Clearly the TVs themselves don’t have the raw processor power to handle the media processing required to make & receive HD Video calls, even at 720p.

You’d expect the TV  to be able to decode the video stream as that’s its primary raison d’être. There’s dedicated silicon in the TV to decode digital video streams. However, the inverse is not also true. There’s no hardware in the TV to encode raw video from the camera into an H.264 stream for use by Skype.

So in establishing these partnerships Skype and the CE companies rely upon external hardware to fill the gap. User need to add an external video camera anyway, so they simply build an accessory camera for the TV that includes hardware for H.264 encoding. The camera module connects to the TV by way of a USB port, providing a video stream already compressed for relay by the embedded Skype client.

In many ways the accessory camera modules are like the little Freetalk Everyman webcam. It too is just a little webcam, ok a good quality one, but the magic is that it has on-board H.264 encoding. It doesn’t place any burden on the host system to encode the video. I’ll have more on that device later on.

Let’s consider Panasonic as an example as they have added Skype to their Viera® HDTVs. Skype is specifically on models that are Viera Cast enabled, those being VT25, VT20, G25, and G20 series.

To support video calling you must add the optional model TY-CC10W Panasonic Skype Enabled Communication Camera which costs around $170. The camera specifications are about typical of a current webcam, like my Logitech Webcam Pro 9000. The big differencing being that the Logitech camera relies upon the host PC to encode the video into an H.264 stream.

Dimensions (H x W x D) 3″ x 8.27″ x 1.7″
Weight Approx. 0.44 lbs. (Including USB cable)
Power Supply DC 5 V (USB powered) 500mA
Lens F/2.0 3P Lens; FOV (D) 56.8°(in HD mode)
Microphone 4 unidirectional microphones
Sensor 1/4 inch CMOS sensor
Resolution 1,280 x 720
Output Image Max. 1,280 x 720 (HD)
Output Format H.264, YUV
Max. Frame Rate 22 fps at HD, 30 fps at VGA
Interface USB 2.0
Power Consumption Max. 1.4 W

They are in fact nearly identical to the Freetalk Everyman webcam…right down to 22 fps @ 720p. That suggests that they share some common technology.

The camera module also adds a microphone array, which makes perfect sense. It’s curious to see that they’ve provide an array of four microphones. That implies that they’re able to do some phase math to effect a kind of “beam forming.”

This technique provides the ability to dynamically alter the directivity of the microphones pickup pattern. The idea is to seek out the main speaker and suppress any background noise. I wonder how effective they can be in this regard, and also whether this process is implemented in the camera module or the Skype client within the TV?

Turning our attention to Samsung for a moment we see that they have elected to cooperate with In-Store Solutions, the makers of the Freetalk Everyman webcam. Rather than offer their own optional camera module they recommend the Freetalk TV Camera For Samsung which is being sold through the Skype store. They offer the Skype client on their higher-end model LED C7000 or LED C8000 LCD-TVs.

As nice as all this seems, and it certainly does bode well for making video calls on the household big screen a practical reality, I can’t help but feel that there’s something askew or someone missing. And that someone is…

I’ve already got a couple of LCD-TVs, chances are you do also. Sure, they might be a year or two old, but they’re still completely fine…there’s no real need to replace them. Would you considering replacing your $1500-2000 TV that’s less than two years old just to get access to Skype calling? That’s definitely not in my plans.

However, we do have a pair of TivoHD units…and we love them! In fact, we’ve owned a total of five Tivo units over the years, not including some that we gave away as gifts.

Though we don’t have a “Home Theater PC” we have a TivoHD at each LCD-TV. Around our house it’s the one computer that you know is connected to a TV. It would make perfect sense for Skype & Tivo to Partner up. Running the Skype client on Tivo, which is really just an embedded Linux system, would allow anyone with a existing HDTV to enjoy the benefits of Skype video calling on their TV.

Skype on Tivo makes so much sense to me. I went to the Tivo web site and registered it as a suggestion. A short while later I was answered by email with a message that thanked me for “thinking outside the box” and a promise that the suggestion would be forwarded to management.

Skype + TivoHD + Any HDTV = a no-brainer!

In reality, when many devices have hardware accelerated H.264 video we going to see video become a more pervasive part of our daily lives. The Freetalk Everyman webcam is just the tip of that iceberg. With the HTC EVO and Apple iPhone 4 having both front and rear-facing cameras they must surely have hardware-based H.264 video encoding. To encode the video on the CPU is an invitation to short battery life. Dedicated silicon must be the way to keep your FaceTime from being measures in merely minutes.

If this trend continues, and there’s no reason to think that it won’t, then newer laptops & netbooks will eventually add hardware-based H.264 encoding capability to augment their existing built-in cameras. The result will be better quality video without killing off the battery so quickly. With such a laptop your experience calling home from afar might be just as enjoyable as those who take your call, and see you on the big screen.