Cisco's $3 billion offer to buy Tandberg yesterday may bring Cisco a more economical telepresence solution than its own (not saying much), but that's only part of the challenge of bringing the technology to the small business and our homes. On Monday, LifeSize will take a big step towards solving the rest of the problem when it introduces the first Skype-compatible, personal telepresence system.
HD video has drawn a fair amount of attention of late. Two weeks ago, HP introduced SkyRoom an HD collaborative environment for modelers, engineers and designers.
Yesterday's Tandberg offer was also only the latest video play for Cisco. In 2005, the company purchased cable set-top box giant Scientific-Atlanta. In 2006, Cisco acquired Arroyo, a provider of video-on-demand software for cable operator and phone companies. In 2007, it was WebEx's turn and this year Cisco bought Pure Digital the maker of Flip handheld video recording.
The Passport from LifeSize though is the first attempt at bringing HD video to consumers as well as business. The HD video and audio conferencing unit is designed to work with a PC's screen or the flat panel TV hanging in your living room. The Passport can be equipped with a Focus camera for desktop use ($2,499) or a Pan Tilt Zoom (PTZ) camera for video surveillance in a security system ($3,499).
In of itself the Passport is a nifty piece of engineering. Small enough to fit in your hand, the Passport can be easily moved around or rolled out in homes or SMBs. A ringer notifies you when a video call is coming in even when the PC's off or if you're in the middle of watching "Lost" reruns on your TV. (Have no fear all of you "Lost" fans. There's a new season starting in February.)
The integration with Skype will get more press even if initially it is a bit of a disappointment. LifeSize has used Skype's SDK to create a native integration with the Skype client. This is not one of the SIP integrations that Skype has announced of late with Cisco, Shoretel, or the SIP forum. This should mean better value for LifeSize in a number of ways not the least of which is video calling.
In theory, LifeSize will rely on Skype to help its users traverse personal firewalls and NATs, a long standing problem when configuring communications for homes and SMBs. Passport users will be able to call one another via Skype. In addition, they will be able to place calls to and receive calls from Skype's 400 million users, increasing the value of LifeSize's offering.
In reality, Skype has yet to expose video calling as part of the SDK. LIfeSize says that video calling with Skype user will be made available two months after product shipment. In the interim, users will be able to call or receive Skype audio calls turning Passport into probably the most expensive Skype phone on the market.
Perhaps that's me just being a wee-bit of a snot. Two months in the life cycle is nothing particularly in a market as immature as HD video conferencing to the home. Yes, yes, I know. There is Skype video calling already and you might wonder how much do folks really want to see on HD. (Thank you, but I would rather not be able to count the zits on your face.)
There are though a number of compelling applications for HD video conferencing particularly as it revolves around elderly home care. Two years ago, for example, we relocated my 83-year old mother-in-law from NJ to Israel. She was at the start of Alzheimer's and keeping her at home alone wasn't particularly feasible.
HD video would have provided two interesting solutions to the problem. For one, surveillance would have meant that we could have considered remotely monitor her care, seeing details of her home that would otherwise have been missed.
Furthermore, telemedicine would have been made medical attention much simper. Now instead of arranging to rush her to the hospital or doctor every time she had a minor ache, a video call could be placed to the doctor. The doctor could diagnose her over the call. Other applications for the HD video includes any area where seeing is critical - as with virtual receptionists, collaborative modeling for engineers, architects or designers, and the real estate industry.