Monday, January 16, 2012

Farewell Umi. We hardly knew you!

Picture phones have been with us for a long time, at least in our dreams. We can go back 50 years:

“ fact, men will no longer commute. They will communicate. They won't have to travel for business anymore. They will only travel for pleasure.” - Arthur C Clarke, 1964.

Or 100.

“The first thing Mr. Smith does is activate his phonotelephote, the wires of which communicate with his Paris mansion. The telephote! Here is another great triumph of modern science. The transmission of speech is an old story; the transmission of images by means of sensitive mirrors connected by wires is a thing but of yesterday. A valuable invention indeed; Mr. Smith this morning is full of blessings for the inventor, when by its aid he is able distinctly to see his wife despite her great distance.” --Jules Verne

Or centuries back to tales of magic mirrors, crystal balls, and seeing-stones. We've always longed to see things from afar, to stand before a larger-than-life image like Captain Kirk aboard the enterprise and carry on a real conversation as if we were in the same room. What we've dreamed of is telepresence more than just teleconferencing; creation of the illusion of a shared space across miles. Commercial telepresence systems come close enough to that dream to say that, for a business with enough money to spend, were there. At home it's another matter. Skype doesn't do it. Google chat with hangouts dont do it. Both are either anchored to your computer or squeezed into your tablet or cell phone, none of which is likely to be the biggest, nicest video monitor in your home. That honor would go to your TV, where the folks at Cisco Systems tried to bring the telepresence experience to the home market through their Umi home videoconferencing system.

I don't need to go into the reasons for the demise of Umi; other people have already said it, and it's fairly simple. Umi was expensive. Starting near six hundred dollars plus a hefty monthy subscription fee it was very expensive - at least from a consumer's point of view, and especially in comparison with Skype which used the computer you already own and perhaps another fifty dollars worth of hardware if you need to buy a webcam.

This explanation is simple, intuitive and, in my opinion, completely misses the bigger point.

The price, while high for a consumer, isn't all that high for what one would be getting. I work for AVI-SPL, a  company which last year introduced our own branded telepresence solution (Chameleon) at a very reasonable for telepresence cost of over a hundred thousand dollars.

Chameleon Telepresence System
 In addition to the cameras, codecs and control system this also includes displays, customized furniture, and professional services in the installation, setup, and calibration of the system. Even given the fact that what anyone in any but the very highest echelons of the consumer market wants is more a single endpoint (industry-speak for one videoconferencing set-up) than a fully immersive telepresence room, one is still looking to scale thousands of dollars worth of  commercial-quality equipment and services to some kind of reasonable consumer level. One could argue that Umi, with a pan-tilt-zoom camera capale of 1080p video was a bargain at six hundred dollars.

So what do we do if we can't afford a professional quality conference system? One vision, as  Cisco tried to do before pulling the plug, there were a cheaper alternative, say perhaps with video at 720p. It's still "high definition", will look great on your screen, and could be priced much more agressively. If enough early adopters buy into the idea to create a a reasonably sized ecosystem of videoconference-equipped homes people's expectations could slowly increase to the poibt that they expect more quality and see webcam-based chat as a toy.

That is, as I said, one vision. The mistake it makes is the same mistake in taking the predictions of Mr. Verne and Mr. Clarke too literally. Reread Clarke's prediction:

“ fact, men will no longer commute. They will communicate. They won't have to travel for business anymore. They will only travel for pleasure.” - Arthur C Clarke, 1964.

Depending on ones business, we still do travel. We travel for business when we need to shake someone's hand, when we have physical work that needs doing, or when we want to show the seriousness of our commitment. We also still travel for pleasure. Communications haven't just moved our work to our our home, they've moved our office into our pocket. They've taken the phone off our kitchen wall and put it in our pockets. They've taken reference books off the library shelves and put them into our pockets.

They've put the world in our pockets.

 The idea of VTC-equipped homes bring me back over twenty years to my grandparents' move to Florida. The family had a ritual that each Sunday morningwe'd gather around the speaker phone and call to chat,to catch up on the past week, and to be together as a family.
And that is why I don't see a future for high price high quality home conferencing. Because, for better or worse, it isn't wenty years ago. Habits have changed, communication has become much more quick and much less formal. A better, more immersive conference system is a gather 'round the hearth kind of technology, which doesn't seem to fit today's more mobile, on-the-go world. I see the future as everyone grabbing their tablets and smartphones for, say,  Google hangout and bring the hearth to them - into their pockets - rather than take the world back out of our pockets and throw it up on the wall.

For a business meeting it's worth gathering everyone around a virtual table to sit down, fire up your laptop, and get to work. A chat amongst friends or family members? I suspect that most of us would rather keep it in our pockets.

Asalways, the future will tell.

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