Telepresence In The Home: Who’s On First?

Cisco today introduced umi, it’s effort to bring telepresence from the board room into the living rooms of the world. Umi (pronounced like “you me”) attaches to an existing HDTV via an HDMI connection and is said to support HD video calling.

Depending upon your available bandwidth umi can provide 720p or 1080i video streams. They quote 720p as requiring 1.5 mbps in each direction, while 1080 requires 3.5 mbps. Those numbers suggest the umi is not supporting the H.264 High Profile compression profile that Polycom has used on their systems. H.264 High Profile makes more efficient use of bandwidth, according to Polycom it’s bandwidth requirements are as little as half that of competitive systems.

Cisco is partnering with Verizon as a provider of bandwidth (FiOS) and Best Buy as a retailer. Given that Verizon doesn’t offer FiOS everywhere some people will doubtless be bandwidth constrained relative to umi’s capabilities.

Here in Houston FiOS is not offered, and our Comcast Business Premium Class access at $99/mo is running 22 mbps x 2 mbps, implying that we’d not be able to sustain a 1080 call using umi. Comcast’s DOCSIS 3.0 service is offered here, providing 50/10 service…but at a price ($190/mo) that most residential users would probably not want to pay.

Umi itself costs $599 plus $25/mo for the video calling service. Cisco must be running or contracting some kind of directory service. Rumor has it that umi is Google Video Chat compatible, which suggests there is a foundation of open protocols underlying the service. But then again, Cisco is known for using proprietary protocols… so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Reconsidering the matter of bandwidth…why would Cisco be pushing umi anyway? They seek to promote that households continue to consume ever greater amounts of bits, pressuring service providers upgrade their infrastructure with the very latest of Cisco’s fat pipes. The question is how to they accelerate the process while keeping end-user costs reasonable?

Of course, Cisco is not alone in this space. Logitech announced their Revue as a Google TV companion box some time ago. It now turns out that Revue is capable of video chat. Revue might be cheaper than the Cisco offering. Logitech certainly has the experience in consumer electronics space, whereas Cisco is a relatively new player in that arena.

As the GigaOm/NewTeeVee post points out Skype is also at play here, offering an embedded Skype client in some high-end LCD TVs from LG, Panasonic and Samsung. However, these models are priced at a premium over their more run-of-the-mill bretheren. They tend to be in the $2800 range for a 42″ set offering a number of features like 3D stereoscopic TV. In fact, the embedded Skype client seems to be one of the less emphasized features of these sets. This suggests to me that Skype embedded in HDTVs is not likely to be widespread, at least not until it’s supported on HDTVs at the more popular price points around $1k-1k5.

But Skype may yet get some traction in the living room if InStore Solutions delivers the goods with their Freetalk Crystal product. As described by Thomas Howe, CTO of ISS, on the VUC call Aug 13th 2010, Crystal involves a set-top-box and a mic/camera module.

Reading between the lines I would suspect that Polycom has something to offer relating to home based tele-presence. But being Polycom they’re pretty hush-hush about undeliverables. It doesn’t help that I’m not under NDA, but then that’s probably because they don’t see any reason to offer me an NDA.

It would not surprise me in the least if Apple came to play at this party. Their AppleTV offering seems like an under-achiever thus far, but its new platform combined with FaceTime might just give it a bit of a boost.

I still feel that the one party that’s yet to appreciate how they might yet find a significant role to play in the is new game is Tivo. All of these new players, from Boxee to Cisco, Logitech and even Polycom are entering into what is for them a new arena. In the living room, den or home theater Tivo is already the dominant DVR…and one that’s well worth paying for. They’ve managed to get some traction in streaming movies and TV from the like of Amazon Unboxed, Netflix and Cinema Now. They’re at worst a good partner for someone with aspirations in this area.

In drawing to a close I’d like to invoke the spirit of The Food Network star Alton Brown, a man who plainly hates uni-taskers. The winner in this battle royale for the living room is not going to be a uni-tasker. It will be the device the presents the best combination of functions and so offers the best value. It will be the device that succeeds where all prior attempts at home theater PCs have failed.

Like JVC’s VHS to Sony’s Betamax, the winner may not be the technical champ, but it will the more practical and functional offering. I further suspect that a willingness to be “open” and extensible will play a part in defining that functionality.

Finally, it seems on fitting to close by quoting Patrick McGoohan‘s classic 1960’s TV show, “The Prisoner.” Long a favorite of mine, and the only box set I own…characters in the mysterious village consistently bid farewell with the phase…“Be seeing you!” If any of the companies mentioned succeed in their efforts we all might be seeing a lot more of friends and family…on the living room TV.

  • Warmbowski

    One of my first thoughts when I was watching the keynote where Jobs introduced the new Apple TV and AirPlay was, “Will a video softphone such as Bria (or IM clients like iChat even) be able to push it’s output to an Apple TV via AirPlay for the sake of a video conference?”. That could be a big deal in a small company that wants to use video conferencing, but doesn’t want to buy an expensive dedicated system. That also means that you may be able to push your video calls from your iPad to a big screen – and that sounds really handy. I haven’t really pondered the details, but could Apple TV and AirPlay and Facetime/iChat AV be positioning itself to be an inexpensive (if you already have a Mac or iOS device) and more versatile alternative to something like the Umi?

    • Warmbowski

      No that I think of it: I suppose that would mean that AirPlay would need to be a two way video bridge with Apple TV, and the Apple TV would need to have a camera attached to it. I suppose that since Apple TV runs iOS, that would be possible.