Cisco's TelePresence Enters New Chamber
Cisco didn't say in advance that's what the press gathering was for, but one peek into Cisco's venue -- a former bank building on Pine Street downtown -- clued everybody in.
The product is called ūmi -- with a horizontal bar over the "u" (to annoy those in the press who aren't HTML-savvy enough to know how to create that character, and just annoy folk in general).
As promised at the CES tradeshow in January, ūmi works using a regular HD television set and a standard home broadband connection; Cisco officials previously told Light Reading the service needs just 1.5 Mbit/s to work. It does require a camera, of course, and a console of its own connected to the TV. It also requires its own remote control. (See Cisco Brings Telepresence Home.)
One of the biggest challenges was the least technological: ūmi had to work in anybody's home. With corporate telepresence, Cisco took control of the lighting, the furniture, and even the wall colors. With the residential version, the trick was to deliver the same experience for a guy on his couch with lousy lighting.
For that reason, ūmi was developed not by the enterprise telepresence team, but by a "new startup, where the members of that team came from the best consumer companies in the world," said Marthin de Beer, Cisco's head of emerging technologies.
ūmi operates like a video phone. Navigation is handled by a clover-shaped prompt, which shows up on the screen only when needed (so it's not in the way of a TV show all the time). Contacts are listed with their photos, and they're the only people who can call you (and you can block them if necessary). The camera has a privacy shutter, so you can hide on a bad hair day. (So, most of the time, then...)
To help get things rolling, Cisco has developed ūmi to be interoperable with Google video chat -- that means it's not necessary for both parties to have all the ūmi technology to set up a video conversation.
Any doubts about Cisco's consumer aspirations will evaporate with ūmi. Cisco has gotten Oprah Winfrey to use the technology on her TV show. And the company will be doing a mall tour, including a display during the Thanksgiving holidays (from Nov. 10) at Valley Fair, which is, like, the mall to hang out at in Silicon Valley.
That's crucial, because Cisco might otherwise have trouble getting consumers to shell out US$599, plus $24.99 per month for unlimited calling, video recording, and other services. The company is preaching that the HD, life-sized experience is crucial to true video communication, but it's got to get the technology in front of people in order to convince them.
"It's like chocolate. If you haven't experienced it yourself, I can't explain it to you," said Cisco's de Beer, instantly laying down a challenge to the world's articulate chocaholics.
Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) will be making ūmi available to FiOS customers in early 2011, and de Beer hinted at a wealth of video-based services to come. "Very soon, you are going to see us virtualize services into the home, just like e-commerce virtualized services with the advent of the browser," he said. "Think of customer service right in your living room."
ūmi can be ordered now, or procured in Best Buy stores starting Nov. 14.
— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading