Video Calling On Your Home HDTV: Take 2–TelyHD And Biscotti

biscotti & tv-250 It seems that there’s a new wave of devices emerging that aim to provide high-quality video calling by way of the family TV.

This is not unfamiliar territory as both Cisco and Google have been in the space for some time. Cisco had their UMI device and associated service. Google had with the video calling capabilities built into Google TV, as exemplified by Logitech’s Revue.

It very clear that none of these prior efforts have made the kind of inroads that had been expected. Umi is no more. Logitech admitted that they took a bath on the Google TV and killed off Revue. Google seems to be continuing the Google TV effort, but it’s unclear where it’s heading.

Even so, Tely Labs is offering TelyHD, an add-on to your existing HDTV that is actually a little Android appliance. TelyHD is not unlike the camera modules that various “Smart TV” makers have been offering. However, where the often pricey smart TV required the $150+ camera option to make Skype video calls, TelyHD includes the Skype client, camera, microphones all in one little device. It’s entirely self-contained, requiring only a network connection and an HDMI connection to your TV.

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The TelyHD device is $249, making them a little more costly than the camera module for a smart TV. When you consider the fact that you can add one to any existing HDTV It becomes clear that TelyHD is a much less expensive way to go. Being based upon Skype there’s no monthly service fee. Nor does it require massive bandwidth. Take that UMI!

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In some ways this is very similar to the idea that I offered last year. I thought that it would be logical for someone like Tivo to include a Skype client. They are an embedded system already connected to your HDTV. Of course the camera and microphones would need to be external, which would have pushed the cost up a little.

Jim Courtney has some excellent coverage of TelyHD, including a nice recording of a call placed between two TelyHD devices. It’s his example that inspired my interest in these devices.

Jim is always on top of any news relating to Skype. When smart TVs first started to appear with an embedded Skype client I waited to hear what his experience would be with a new Panasonic or Samsung HDTV.

Sadly, it seems that a fancy new smart HDTV was not to be in Jim’s future. This is completely understandable. The Skype-capable smart TVs started in the $2500-3000 range, well above the average selling price of non-smart (dumb?) HDTVs of similar size.

We still enjoy a 42” Sharp Aquos that’s about five years old. I don’t anticipate replacing it any time soon. We’ll wait for the coming crop of HDTVs based upon OLED technology. Even before then I could envision adding something like TelyHD.

TelyHD is not the only new player in this space, the other noteworthy entrant is Biscotti. Yes, Biscotti. The company, and the device itself, is named for the low-profile crescent shape of the module, which resembles one of those crumbly Italian cookies for dunking in coffee.

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Biscotti has one clear advantage; at $199 it’s cheaper than TelyHD. It’s simpler, too…but t’s not clear that this is actually an advantage.

Biscotti is simpler in that it has only a couple of HDMI connectors. It’s intended to sit inline with your existing satellite or cable box. I’m told that it can perform picture-in-picture processing, allowing the TV show that you’re watching to be squeezed into a window when you also take a video call. I would presume that the video call can also be toggled to be the larger window.

The potential problem with Biscotti is that it’s wholly proprietary. Whereas TelyHD is a Skype end-point, the Biscotti device can only call other Biscotti devices. I find this to be a clear violation of Metcalfe’s law, and something that it has in common with UMI.

I paid a visit to the Biscotti web site a registered an inquiry about interoperability, protocols, codec, etc. The support staff responded quickly, informing me that the device doesn’t use SIP or H.323, although compatibility with such protocols may be offered in the future. For the moment Biscotti is an island, which is a pity.

At least they’re smart enough to not have a monthly service charge ala UMI.

Both Biscotti and TelyHD support HD video in the form of 720p at sensible data rates. They also both support HDVoice. TelyHD leverages Skype’s SILK codec, which is very good indeed. The Biscotti web site reports that they have “16 KHz HD audio” also when pressed the support staff admitted that it’s 16 KHz sampling, so an 8 KHz useful audio path. I would guess that they use G.722 although it could be G.722.1, Siren7 or even SPEEX.

Of the two devices TelyHD looks a little more future proof. It has a USB port and the flexibility to use Wifi or a wired network connection. Biscotti relies solely on Wifi, it’s only interconnects being the two HDMI jacks.

TelyHD also has built-in speakers. This is useful for ringing when a call is incoming. It means that TelyHD need not be the current input on your HDTV to know that a call is arriving.

Clearly both of these devices blow the bottom out of the price of video calling for consumer and SMB users. The LifeSize Passport Connect, a similar sort of device and introduced at previously unheard of price point ($1,000) seems in comparison an over-priced paperweight.  However, the Passport Connect does support SIP, H.323 and Skype…which remains impressive….even if the Skype calls are limited to VGA resolution.

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Remember also that LifeSize is a division of Logitech. They could get very aggressive with pricing on something like the Passport Connect…if they really needed to. It targeted the SMB market and not consumers, which goes a long way to explaining the pricing strategy.

It happens that mid-March I will be making a trip to the UK for a week long visit to Pixel Power HQ. That seems to me the perfect opportunity to trial one of these devices. I’d leave one installed at home on our HDTV and take the other along to jolly old England. I’d use it from the office where both HDTVs and bandwidth are plentiful.

In the case of Biscotti I’d need a pair of devices. With TelyHD I might get away with just one, using the Skype soft client on my laptop for the other end. Who knows, if the corporate powers-that-be are impressed it could inspire them to add several devices to connect our offices in the US, UK and Dubai. I’ve been promoting the use of video calling for a couple of years, but getting little traction with the idea in a sluggish economy.

I think that I’ll be reaching out to both of these companies very soon to see if they might provide samples on loan. More news to follow as it happens….

  • http://voiceontheweb.biz JimCanuck

    I actually am using a six-year-old Sony Bravia for my TelyHD experience It would be a tough sell to convince my wife we need a new TV just for the “smart TV” capability.

    TelyHD, being based on Android, will be coming along with more applications. Also from what I saw we will be seeing more low cost “smart” platforms that support, say, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube from one device.

    Actually the recording on my post was done on a call where the other party had TelyHD and I was using Skype 5.7 beta for Windows and VodBurner as the recording application. And using that combination reinforces an argument for using Skype – calls can be to any device with a Skype client – PC’s, smartphones (Android, iOS), tablets (iPad) or any other “Skype for TV” configuration.

    • http://www.mgraves.org mjgraves

      Jim,

      I think that the embedded Skype client alone did little to sell the higher-end Smart TVs. These tended to be sets with 3D capability, and in the upper end of the market, at least initially. Prices are falling, but I agree than TelyHD is compelling way to add Skype capability to any existing HDTV.

      I have a 26″ Sony Bravia of a similar vintage in my office. Long ago it was used to demo some of my employers gear, now it’s just used to ascertain presence of picture on my test bench.

      I really am curious to know of the TelyHD device would recognise a USB audio device if you plugged one in? Something like the Yamaha PSG-01 or ClearOne Chat 160. For SOHO/SMB applications I can see the ability to do so as possibly beneficial.

      Michael

  • Brandon C

    I don’t think it would recognize those devices as the code is written now. Maybe someone will figure out how side load some apps and then you could do all kinds of things.

    You can plug in a thumb drive, SD card and access the photos for sharing while video chatting or personalize your background and things like that.

  • factually

    >>”The potential problem with Biscotti is that it’s wholly proprietary. Whereas TelyHD is a Skype end-point, the Biscotti device can only call other Biscotti devices.”

    I have a problem with this statement as it’s entirely false. Biscotti uses google video chat and as such, you should be able to video chat with anyone else who has access to google talk (iOS, android, email, etc).

    • http://www.mgraves.org mjgraves

      I stand corrected. This was not something that I was aware of initially. Thanks for pointing it out.

      What I was hoping for was SIP or H.323 interop, which would open it to a whole range of devices. When I as asked the company about that they replied it may be considered in the future.

      • Jonas

        If this Google video chat thing turns out to be true, the protocol is Jabber/Jingle and should be trivial to bridge to SIP as both Asterisk and FreeSwitch can speak it.

        • Alejandro

          I wonder if Biscotti, may support other webconference solutions anytime soon.

          • mjgraves

            Who knows? I’ve reached out to both companies, but they don’t ever respond to me.