Cisco today unveiled its long-awaited consumer Telepresence product. A smaller and scaled-down version of the company’s enterprise-grade TelePresence system, “ūmi” (‘you-me’) comes with an HD camera, a console and a remote. The idea of the videophone is far from new. Children of the 60s and 70s may recall George Jetson getting chewed out by his boss, Mr. Spacely, over videochat. In fact, the technology, is older than that, and was conceptualized as early as the late 1800s. The German Bundespost offered (albeit short-lived) commercially-available service the1930’s. AT&T announced its Picturephone product at the 1964 World’s Fair, though the service never quite took off, reportedly maxing out at 500 subscribers nationwide.
This time it’s different…
What makes this time different? According to Cisco’s VP of Consumer Marketing, Ken Wirt, three things are different this time. The quality and ubiquity of HD displays, the increased average household bandwidth, and exponentially increasing processing power have converged to create a ‘perfect storm’ for telepresence.
With apologies to Elvis Costello
Writing about telepresence is like dancing about architecture
Or was that Frank Zappa? In any case, as with HD or 3D, trying to explain telepresence to someone who hasn’t seen it is akin to trying to explain the color blue to a blindfolded person. You kind of have to see it to understand it. I had a chance to test drive the product last week before the official product announcement, and must say that—even as a professional skeptic--I left the demo thoroughly impressed. The so-called “immersive” effect (allowing you to ‘see what others are feeling’ ) is quite noticeable, and is what distinguishes it from a garden-variety Skype video or web-based video chat program. There is near perfect synchronization between audio/video, and people appear life sized on the screen. Ken Wirt cited a study showing that 55% of all conversation is non-verbal. It’s no surprise that it is our body language, the nods and raised eyebrows, shaking heads, smiles and smirks, that distinguish a phone call from a ‘carbon-based’ face-to-face meeting.
The Uncomfortable Topic of Money
The price tag is steep, at $599 for the unit, plus a monthly fee of $24.99 for unlimited ūmi calls, video messaging and video storage. The system will be sold through Best Buy/Magnolia Home Theater stores, bestbuy.com and on the cisco website. The service requires a minimum of 3.5 Mbps to work in 1080p, though it can be optimized for use at lower speeds, as low as 1.5Mbps for 720p. This means that the service will largely be limited to those with cable broadband or FTTx. Cisco believes that 34% of US households have this type of upstream capability—which is in line with Strategy Analytics’ own estimates.
The Network Effect
Back in the early days, the phone company sold “telephone pairs,” with the understanding that the value of the network lies in the number of nodes. A telephone network with one phone is not terribly valuable. Nor is a telepresence unit if there’s nobody on the other end. Cisco has partially circumvented this problem by providing interoperability with Google video chat, though if you’re spending $600 on a unit, you probably want the “real thing.” The real value of telepresence will be realized when there is a robust network of equipped households. While family video-calling seems the most obvious use-case, its utility seems rather limited. How many times do we really want to videochat with Grandma each month? Unless and until the network reaches critical mass, the appeal and draw of video calling will be very limited. Rather than a consumer mass market play, the real opportunity might very well be in the Business to Consumer (B2C) space. If private industry can help subsidize and drive the technology more mainstream, it could hit the critical mass it needs. Cisco talked about a number of other potential applications, three sound like potential winners in driving telepresence forward. These include
Financial Services: A $600 upfront investment and $25/month is a drop in the bucket for a company trying to prove its value to high net worth clients. For the cost of a few steak dinners, a Financial Services company could equip a client’s living room and increase the frequency of “touch points.”
Health Care: While the chatter around Telemedicine never seems to cease, this is one application where it actually could make sense. An insurance company might find it financially beneficial to subsidize a unit for a patient requiring regular and routine examinations, or for medical compliance monitoring (“Did you take your pills Mrs. Smith?”)
Distance Learning: How about tapping into the multi-billion dollar distance learning market in the US. Equip every “Phoenix” with a system? That’s what I call scale.
I want one… but not for $599 plus $24.99/month
Many who experience the technology firsthand will want one for their own living room. It’s cool. It works well, and the potential applications are only limited by the imagination. It’s light years ahead of pc-based chat. On the flipside, the price is high. Too high. And when you add on the 24.99/month fee, it starts to feel like another cable bill. Survey research conducted by Strategy Analytics in Q3’10 shows that 30% of Americans showed some interest in a service of this type. Importantly, though, 46% of those interested said they are often concerned about their ability to afford regular household bills, 45% said they worried about signing up to new fixed term contracts when buying new products and services.
Adoption Will be Slow But Steady
Cisco would certainly admit that the $599 price point is untenable for the long run, and as volumes slowly ramp up, we should expect to see price points come down. If Cisco is successful in getting private industry into the game, and a subsidy model takes hold, we could see adoption speed up. The other barrier standing in the way of rapid adoption is broadband. While today only one-third of households have the minimum required bandwidth to support the system, this will certainly increase going forward. We estimate that by 2015, over 60% of all US households will have at least 1.5 Mbps upstream capabilities. Stay tuned…we’ll be putting out a Telepresence report in the upcoming