Telepresence - high definition videoconferencing has come to consumers, in the US at least, with the launch by Cisco of its ūmi (you-me) offering at $US599 and $US24.99 per month.|
by Stuart Corner, published on Thursday, October 7, 2010 - 13:56
The $US599 buys an HD video camera, console and remote; the $24.99 monthly fee covers unlimited usage including unlimited online storage of their videos. In addition, users need an HD TV and a broadband service capable of at least 1.5Mbps in both directions (for 720p) and 3.5Mbps for 1080p.
As well as holding high def videoconferences with friends and family users can also record their own ūmi videos, which they can share on Facebook, on YouTube, or via email. They can also keep in touch with people who don't have ūmi by placing and receiving video calls from any computer with a webcam and Google video chat.
Cisco will be making a big splash with the product in the US with a spot on the Oprah Winfrey Show, live demonstrations in more than 20 major shopping malls across the US and a national advertising campaign using Ellen Page, the star of 'Juno' and 'Inception', that "will feature Ellen and her friends using ūmi in their everyday lives."
US analysts and commentators have been quick to respond to the announcement - but responses have been mixed. ABI Research's Jason Blackwell suggested that the relatively high price in the current economic climate "might seem divergent with current consumer behaviour and preferences." (However there has been no shortage of people willing to shell out a similar amount for an Apple iPad.)
Blackwell asks: "why is Cisco releasing a product aimed at the high end, when a number of far less expensive alternatives exist (eg webcams/Skype/Google Chat and the upcoming Microsoft Kinect)?" His answer: the compellingly superior experience of high def.
Gartner's Nick Jones was not convinced, arguing that much cheaper and comparable alternatives already exist. "If there is a demand for higher quality, then Skype can just increase their resolution, implement a new codec, or support better webcams and you can always plug your PC into the TV if you want a big screen. The average modern PC has multicore and a ton of computing power to spare so I don't see much scope for a dedicated hardware box to provide any meaningful quality differentiation in the long term."
Jones was writing in advance of the official launch but had the details pretty accurately. Another analyst Ben Piper, service director at Strategy Analytics, who had been privileged to play with ūmi ahead of its launch told a very different story.
"This is a see-it-to-understand-it type of technology," he said. "The synchronisation between audio/video and the dynamic lighting and volume adjustments make it feel remarkably close to a face-to-face interaction." But he agreed that prices will have to come down significantly before the product can reach any kind of measurable volumes.
Skype was quick to put ūmi down - which suggest it does see ūmi as potentially a serious competitor. On the company's blog, Jonathan Christensen, general manager of the platform business unit, claimed that Skype video was comparable in quality and free, and he made the dubious argument that, thanks to Moore's Law, this $599 device is likely to be "subject to obsoletism at the hands of mass-market options that sell for 1/2, then 1/4, and eventually 1/10 the price." (If you followed that argument you would never buy a PC.)
I believe these detractors are missing the point. I doubt that Cisco expects massive uptake of ūmi. What it is doing is creating, with a view to leading, a totally new market that will ultimately meet a major Cisco goal: drive traffic volumes on networks and so drive demand for its networking products.
Furthermore I believe its sees ūmi as a product, its first by my reckoning, that will enable it to leverage its position in the enterprise market to grow its consumer business.
Writing on Cisco's channel blog, Alexandra Krasne, global communications manager for new media, said: "Initially, Cisco ūmi telepresence will not interoperate with Cisco TelePresence business solutions. However, our vision is to transform life's experiences, connecting people to each other, their ideas, and their world. We see enormous future opportunities in connecting businesses with consumers to provide innovative services in education, healthcare, financial services, smart + connected communities, and more."
On his blog, Marthin de Beer, senior vice president of Cisco's emerging technologies group, said 'We see tremendous opportunities in helping businesses and consumers connect in new ways. Imagine your child receiving world class tutoring from the comfort and safety of your home, or a chronically ill patient receiving the best medical attention without ever having to leave their home."
Another point that those who point out the cheaper but comparable alternatives miss, is that these are not plug-and-play in the way ūmi seems to be. According to another commentator, Yankee Group's Zeus Kerravala, "Users can make unlimited video calls, record video messages, record video greetings within the community of people that have been set up. The usage is driven off the remote control and is very simple to use. The user can zoom, tilt and turn the camera on/off from the sofa.
"The solution is designed with security and privacy in mind. There is a physical shutter that goes over the camera when not in use. There's no ability to do a search on names and find people to chat with (like you can with Skype), so consumers do not need to be concerned with random people trying to communicate with them. The solution is meant to be deployed within a group of people that want to TelePresence with one another and not meant to be a tool used to find people to communicate with randomly."
And that includes people, elderly relatives perhaps, who are definitely not going to muck about with video cameras and Skype and with plugging their computer into their TV.
Cisco chairman and CEO, John Chambers, with his customary hyperbole said: "It will completely transform the way we live, how we entertain, how we connect with others on a personal, business, healthcare and educational basis."
He also described Cisco TelePresence as "one of the most fundamental changes in the work environment since the industrial revolution and the assembly line." That's a bit rich, but he is certainly correct in predicting that high resolution videoconferencing technologies in the home used to connect to other homes and to providers of education, healthcare and other services will fundamentally change the way we live and work.
And it is clear that Cisco is determined to secure first mover advantage in this market.