Cisco has introduced Umi, a home telepresence system that uses existing high-definition TVs and also works with Google Video Chat.
Umi uses a console device, a remote and a camera unit with five microphones that sits on top of the TV, Cisco announced in San Francisco on Wednesday.
It will cost US$599 for the equipment and $24.99 per month for a service from Cisco. The service will include cloud-based contact lists and stored video. The system can be ordered now and will be available beginning Nov. 14 at the Magnolia high-end electronics stores at Best Buy. Verizon Communications, which has been running trials of the service, will offer it to its home broadband customers beginning early next year.
In addition to talking live with each other, users will be able to show videos recorded earlier. If they miss a call, the caller can leave a video message that can be retrieved on the TV, a PC or a mobile phone. For privacy, there is a shutter on the camera that can be activated, leaving just audio coming from the home.
In addition to buying the equipment and monthly service, users will need to have a broadband service with at least 1.5M bps (bits per second) both downstream and upstream in order to enjoy Umi, Cisco officials said. Those speeds will deliver 720p video. For 1080p, users will need 3.5M bps both downstream and upstream.
Consumers who don't have Umi will be able to participate in the video sessions through Google Video Chat on a PC, at a lower level of quality. No other third-party video services are supported at this time.
Analysts say Cisco's introduction is a big step forward for home videoconferencing, though the short-term prospects for that concept aren't yet clear.
"It takes videoconferencing into the living room, which actually takes it into the mainstream," said Wainhouse Research analyst Andrew Davis.
"I think we're coming into the age where visual communications is not only accepted: it's becoming widely expected," Davis said. Moving it beyond webcams and laptops is critical, he said. "People really want it on the television. They don't want it on the PC."
However, the mass market for this type of high-end product is probably far off, analyst Kurt Scherf of Parks Associates said. Only 20 percent of broadband households use webcams for videoconferencing today, he said.
"If only 20 percent of households have done it with dirt-cheap pricing and easy setup, how many are actually going to do this for a $600 product and a $25-a-month subscription?" Scherf said.
"The target markets for this are made up of specific niche consumers, at this point at least," Scherf said. One of those will be people with elderly relatives who want to not only communicate with them but see whether they look well, he predicted.
Much rides on the product for Cisco, which has been promising consumer telepresence almost since the introduction of the high-definition conferencing system for enterprises in 2006.
"More market research has gone into this product [than] perhaps any other product in the history of Cisco," Wainhouse's Davis said.
Other vendors are also lining up to bring videoconferencing to high-definition TVs. At the International Consumer Electronics Show early this year, Panasonic and LG Electronics announced TVs with embedded Skype software. Panasonic's offering began shipping in May, and LG has said its product would be available by year's end.