By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, October 6, 2010 at 9:58 am
Maybe 2010 is going to be remembered as the year when consumer videophones got real–or at least closer to real than they’ve ever been before. First there was Apple’s FaceTime. And today Cisco is announcing an ambitious home videoconferencing system.
It’s called ūmi (that’s you-me), and it’s a setup for making high-definition video calls using your wireless network and broadband connection. It includes a 1080p camera (with a remote-controllable lens that can zoom, pan, and tilt), a set-top box, and a remote control. It’s based on some of the technologies that Cisco has used for years in its business-oriented telepresence products, but wrapped up in an experience designed for consumers. And it reminds me of the scenarios in Cisco’s entertaining but confusing TV ads with Ellen Page, except it’s a real consumer product which is about to hit the market.
The system is compatible with all broadband networks that deliver at least 1.5-Mbps up and down (3.5-Mbps or more is ideal), and is designed to deliver the best-quality video it can at whatever bandwidth it’s got. Sounds like Cisco’s going to promote it hard: It’s partnering with Verizon to sell it to users of FiOS broadband, setting up demo stations in malls…and working with Oprah, who’ll use it on her show.
If you buy a ūmi, you probably want to use it to call friends and family who have ūmis, but that’s not strictly required: You can use it to record videos for sharing via Facebook, YouTube, and e-mail, and it’s compatible with Google Talk for Windows PCs and Macs.
ūmi looks cool, but the coolness comes with a sizable pricetag: It costs $599, and there’s a $24.99 monthly fee for unlimited video calling. It’ll be available for November 14th.
More thoughts in a bit–I’m at the press conference where they’re revealing the product, and they’re going to give us the opportunity to see it close-up.
Here are the additional thoughts based on a demo: The video and audio quality of the calls we made (to the real live family of a Cisco exec) were excellent except for a brief bit of blockiness at one point. And on a big TV, the experience is pretty spectacular–the larger the set, the more it’s going to feel like the distant people are in the room with you. The user interface looked reasonably slick and simple, too.
The setup requires a fair amount of space and some complexity: The camera is roughly the size of a rolling pin and the set-top box is around the size of a medium-sized DVD player. You have to run two cables between them, plus an HDMI cable to the TV. The camera has a bracket on the back that’s designed to allow it to sit safely on top of a variety of TV designs, and you can also mount it to a wall.
My sense is that Cisco decided to err on the side of keeping the quality high and the ongoing experience straightforward, rather than making the cheapest box or the smallest box. My parents would love this for chatting with their distant grandkids, but it would cost a total of $1200 in equipment and $50 a month in services between the two households.) A lower-cost, slimmer product that cost less has a way higher chance of being a breakout hit–and you really want to be able to use this thing to communicate with anyone who has any device with an Internet connection and a videocamera. Cisco says it’s very interested in working with other companies to make ūmi work with additional devices. (An ūmi which was compatible with FaceTime would be a huge boon for owners of both Cisco’s and Apple’s products.)
At first blush, this first incarnation of ūmi doesn’t look like an iPod-like breakthrough combination of features, simplicity, and price that’ll put telepresence in millions of living rooms. But it might be a significant step in that direction, especially if the early adopters who buy it are pleased with their investment.
Random idea which may or may not be practical: If Cisco threw in Vonage-style telephone calls for the $24.99 monthly charge, it might make the idea of a significant ongoing service fee more palatable. And how about a family pack that includes two ūmis (is that the plural?) at a discounted price?
Here’s a video demo from Cisco–I’m curious to hear what all you think :