Is Cisco’s ‘Telepresence’ Videoconferencing System the Answer?
It’s green, but how much will you pay for HD-quality Grandma?
October 14, 2010 by Steven Castle

Want to have a videoconference with the home office or grandma? It could save you lots of jet fuel and travel costs—and because of that the technology is considered green. Though the choice up till now has been to use a free service like Skype—and accept the poor video—or pony up thousands (sometimes five or six figures) for HD-quality “telepresence” systems from companies like Tandberg, Polycom and LifeSize.

That may have changed last week when Cisco announced its $599 umi system, which consists of a camera, remote and set-top box for making HD video calls on your HDTV.

Umi is connected to an HD television and a wired or wireless broadband connection. A remote control provides access to an on-screen user interface, through which users can make umi calls, access video messages, manage contacts, and customize their profile and settings. Users can also record their own umi videos, which they can share on Facebook, YouTube or via email.

Cisco says users can keep in touch with people who don’t have umi by placing and receiving video calls from any computer with a webcam and Google video chat. Video messages can be checked on-the-go with a laptop

Umi will be available through Best Buy on Oct 18, and requires a $25 per month calling plan, which adds $300 a year to the cost.

Still, compared with systems that cost into the five figures, umi looks like a game changer.

But that may only be in theory.

Still Too Expensive?

Serious doubts have been raised in news articles about umi, concerning whether Best Buy consumers will pay $600, plus the extra $300 a year for the calling plan. It seems like a great buy for an enterprise office solution, but in the world of free services, will many of us pay that much for HD-quality Grandma?

And will Grandma? Because remember, it takes two to videoconference.

Nevertheless, umi is the system Cisco will install in thousands of apartment units in the new city of Songdo, South Korea. That’s right, it’s a new city being built on 1,500 acres of land reclaimed from the sea near Incheon, South Korea.

Cisco is deeply invested in Songdo, which is being billed as an “International Business District” and a city of the future, borrowing design amenities for parks and canals from other great cities and connecting everyone living in it with—you guessed it—telepresence systems from Cisco. Songdo planners also say the city will emit just one-third of the greenhouse gasses of a similarly sized city, partly due to video conferencing.

Custom integration expert and Silicon Valley insider Rich Green of Rich Green, Ink, believes they may be some very, shall we say, enterprising motives behind Cisco’s investments in videoconferencing, its $3.4 billion purchase of Tandberg, and its purchase of Flip video phone maker Pure Digital. Green also says to be prepared for an entirely new kind of source component in the living room, in the form of the videoconferencing set-top box. “And stand back in awe of what happens when friends and families connect like they never have before.”

But Really, Video Caller, Are You Needed?

All that video chatter aside, do we really need telepresence in our homes? In the 1990s videoconferencing was pushed as the next big thing, but it never took off, largely because most people didn’t see the need to have others see them while chatting on the phone. Who wants to dress up to go out in your own home?

Has the technology changed so much to make video conferencing ubiquitous? Have our high-test expectations evolved toward that? Or are we simply that much more reliant on video to fuel every aspect of our lives?

Then again, an entire generation has passed since that time—and there’s a whole new brood of teenagers who are very likely willing to have video chats over their phones. They won’t need high-def telepresence systems for now—but they may well expect them later.

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Steven Castle - Contributing Writer
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates.

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