Cisco ūmi – more than it seems?

Cisco has announced Telepresence for the home, branded “Cisco ūmi” (you-me, geddit?). Is this a big deal? Maybe.

Firstly, what is telepresence? Well, conveniently I wrote a piece about this as a university project some <ahem> years ago. Telepresence was using technology to perform actions somewhere other than where you actually were. For instance, a doctor performing surgery remotely. As far as I can remember, it wasn’t simply a video feed.

Which, if I was being unfair, is how I would describe Cisco Telepresence. It’s video conferencing. It’s not the Telepresence of my youth.

But there are a few significant things about Cisco’s products to date. Firstly, they have been easy to use – as easy as making a phone call. In fact, Telepresence calls are made using a Cisco IP phone. It’s blended into the UC stack, so users can join Telepresence calls regardless of their endpoint and they will get the best experience available to that endpoint – a mobile call to a mobile phone, slideware to a smartphone, video to a videophone/PC and, of course, a damn great HD picture to a Telepresence room. But the last, and perhaps most important aspect is the nature of the full experience. In order to grab part of that “full immersion” of Telepresence that I discussed at the top of the page, the Cisco offering builds your room to fit the product – a bespoke desk, three big screens, three or six cameras and six chairs. At the other end of the link is an exact replica of your room, and the end effect is of twelve people around a single table.

Well, almost. It’s really pretty good.

So, here’s the bit I struggle with. Apparently the Cisco ūmi product plugs into your home HD TV and allows you to have video calls with your friends and family. Now I really appreciate being able to do that in high def in my living room, rather than squinting over a computer screen, and that’s worth something. But it’s hardly fully immersive. It’s just a video call. And whilst I’m 100% in agreement with John Chambers that video communications is a technology about to burst open, with all kinds of handy applications, there are other offerings which can do the same.

But the key to interactive video in phone calls and other services is not the device – this one is not as revolutionary as Cisco would like us to think, after all I can plug my PC into my TV to achieve something similar. The device needs to be really easy to use – which is why I use a Personal Video Recorder with a hard disk instead of a cobbled together home video solution. The PVR is not cheap, doesn’t do everything I’d like, doesn’t even have ethernet (just USB) or a standard file format, but it is good all-round value and the whole family can use it without written instructions. Technology which “just works” sells. Ask Apple.

No, the video device is becoming a commodity and with internet technology being built into TV’s will be superfluous for new sets in a few years time. The big value is in what happens back in the network. It’s the service which allows you to connect to other people, access other video sources like Youtube, record and upload video to the same, view iPlayer and the like.

Cisco is doing what it did with the IP Phone – seeing the opportunity for pull through on services and making a device to seed the market. The big surprise with the Cisco IP Phone was, and still is, that it’s sold in bucket loads. Will Cisco ūmi surprise me and do the same?

It looks like Cisco have invested time and effort on the usability of Cisco ūmi, but having scoured the net (a bit) I’ve not been able to find any details of how this actually works (as opposed to how it looks). But there clearly is a service on offer here, because there’s a cost of $24.99 a month for it. Not so bad in itself, but at $599 for the device it’s a steep entry.

But are Cisco really expecting to sell loads of video calling kit to home users in order for them to be able to talk to friends and family? I doubt it. The market that pays the big bucks is business, not consumer. As a consumer device this one is niche. As a home business device it just might have legs. Although it does not currently support connectivity with the business Telepresence systems, who’s up for a bet that that function arrives before too long?

And when it does, $599 will seem cheap.

And the potential pullthrough on internet Service Provider business, where no doubt Cisco routers will include features which can lead to a better end-user experience (WAAS?), must certainly be a key factor in this launch.

So my advice: don’t write this one off too swiftly.

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About mikbarne
I'm a writer and freelance communications and collaboration consultant with nearly 20 years experience in UK telecommunications, specialising in VoIP, Unified Communications and Collaboration, and building effective communications architectures. Visit my Google+ Profile

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