Revisiting Video Calling To The Living Room, Yet Again

This is a topic that seemingly will not go away, yet it’s not clear that there’s much uptake by customers. Going back two years, the first wave of “Smart HDTVs” were capable of running an embedded Skype application. With the addition of an optional camera/microphone module HDTVs from Samsung, Panasonic and others were able to provide 720p video calling from point-to-point.

While a curiosity, this capability was initially limited to the high-end models that priced around $3K. Then you had to add the optional camera module, which cost an additional $200-300. In addition, there were reports of interoperability issues with other types of Skype clients. Your pricey HDTV might not be able to call a Mac or  PC-based Skype client.

To be sure, the cost of smart HDTVs has been falling, making such capability available at prices closer to $1K. Even so, it’s just not clear to me that embedded video calling in smart TVs was the revolution that some expected. Asking around I’ve yet to find anyone who found the Smart TV apps a compelling argument for replacing their existing HDTV.

That reality must be nearly universal. In response, several companies have launched products that promise to add video calling to existing HDTVs.

Tely Labs launched an Android-based Skype client called TelyHD. Currently offered at $250 each this device allows literally any HDTV to be turned into an embedded Skype client. It’s unique in that it has a variety of ports and connections. This in combination with the Android OS makes it perhaps the most extensible device of its kind.

At about the same time Biscotti burst onto the scene with a similar product. The Biscotti device ignores Skype, instead leveraging XMPP to provide a Google Talk client with audio and video capabilities.  Lacking the hardware flexibility of TelyHD, Biscotti is possibly the simplest of these devices…making it a potentially good choice for the non-technical user. Initially offered for $250, Biscotti can now be had for just $199 each.

Biscotti may yet prove interesting if Google does as promised and makes Google Talk more seamlessly integrated with Google+  Hangouts.

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Comcast stepped up to the table, offering Skype On Xfinity…a set-top box featuring an embedded Skype client. Consistent with the finest traditions of the CableCo realm, they don’t sell the device. Instead, they rent it to customers for a modest $10/month to cover both the hardware and the service. There’s no up-front cost, but you pay for as long as you use the service.

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Logitech took something of a gamble in supporting Google TV with their Revue box. Video calling was one of its many capabilities.  Here again, an optional camera & microphone module was required. When Google TV failed to achieve orbital velocity as hoped the Revue device was eventually killed off.

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More recently Logitech has announced, but is not yet delivering a derivative device called Logitech TV Cam HD. Also offered for $199, this device is the typical embedded Skype client with onboard camera and microphone array. Since Logitech leads the webcam space it makes a certain amount of sense that they’d be a player where this kind of product is concerned.

Despite all the aforementioned gadgetry, I still don’t know anyone who uses this kind of thing. It makes me wonder just how much of this hardware gets sold, and if any of it gets used? Has any of this stuff found its way into your home or office? If so, I’d be interested in hearing about your experience with it.

  • Greg

    Not sure these single purpose devices will take off.  An Atom based nettop can be had for less than $250 and can run the regular Windows Skype client as well as serve many other purposes while connected to the HDTV.  

    • mjgraves

      While you may be right, I suspect that only applies to a certain type of target user. Most people as yet just don’t hook a computer of any common sort up to their HDTV, much less dedicate one to such a task. That’s why I think the appliance approach is valid. I still think that Tivo should consider adding Smart TV functions into their platform, since it’s by definition connected to an HDTV.

  • mjgraves

    Incidentally, Tivo just announced their quad-tuner Tivo Premiere 4 priced at $250. It curious to compare the value proposition of the DVR vs TelyHD et al.

  • Probably the newly released Vizio Co-star would do better than Revue.

    •  We’re seriously considering a Tivo Premiere 4 to replace both our TivoHD Series 3 devices. Then adding the Tivo Streamer when it’s released.