Why personal telepresence will fail: it ain't the price

Why personal telepresence will fail: it ain't the price

Summary: Personal telepresence systems will fail to take hold due to self-consciousness and a desire for privacy.

TOPICS: 4G, Apple, Cisco, Privacy

The high cost of first generation personal telepresence systems such as the Logitech Revue and the Cisco Umi may be a barrier for some, but at the end of the day the major resistance to adoption will come down to self-consciousness and privacy (Photo: CBS)

This last week, Logitech and Cisco both launched new personal telepresence products -- the Revue and the Umi -- in a bid to finally bring video calling and videoconferencing, a technology that has been largely targeted towards corporations for reducing the cost of business and travel -- to the masses.

My colleague and Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan has declared that both of these two products are likely to fail because they are both too expensive in terms of equipment and recurring service costs. While I agree with this at least in terms of early-adopter resistance, I don't think that this is the real reason why this technology is unlikely going to catch on soon, and interestingly enough I don't think it has much to do with cost, at least long term.

Video calling and telepresence technologies are not new, and there have been multiple attempts in the last 40 years or so to bring it to the average citizen, including by Ma Bell herself, who spent hundreds of millions of dollars in research & development during the 1960's and the 1970's and eventually marketed video phones in the late 1990's that used fairly modest bandwidth (essentially dial-up modem speeds) with primitive but still quite functional picture quality.

In 1995, the price of an AT&T VideoPhone 2500 cost $1000 with a recurring monthly cost of $90 (in addition to regular voice call overhead) which while certainly a considerable sum of money for the average citizen was not entirely out of reach of the upper middle class and early adopters during a relatively strong economy compared to what we have today.

AT&T and other companies which offered similar products still failed to successfully market and sell these personal video calling solutions, with no lack of customers with money to burn during the naughty nineties.

In just the last 10 years, we've easily had the technological ability with cheap CCDs (1-5 Megapixel), low power microprocessors, ASICs and commodity cable modem and DSL bandwidth to allow more than just rudimentary 2-way video calling that would allow mass-market video appliances to be connected next to TV monitors all over the house.

These would not be just hobbyist webcams to be used in the proximity of our PC monitors for recording vanity YouTube videos or having short Skype IP-based video calls from our office desk environments as they are used today.

What would it cost, really, to make a simple 2MP SVGA/XVGA video phone as a consumer appliance paired with an inexpensive IP calling service such as Skype or Google Video nowadays, $100? Certainly much cheaper than what the average iPod or smartphone costs to manufacture. So if the technology is so cheap, why has it never actually caught on outside the workplace?

Dr Heywood Floyd calling his daughter from earth orbit in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The idea and the dream of personal and widespread-use of video calling has always been a staple of science fiction. We've seen it portrayed as a common enabling technology on any number of TV shows such as Star Trek (1966) or in classic SF movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Blade Runner (1982).

Science Fiction can teach you a lot.

One of the things I've noticed about the use of telepresence technology in Sci-Fi is that you almost never see full-body representations of people in private, home environments. Sure, on Star Trek, you'll sometimes see Captain Picard or the Romulan Commander standing on their bridge of their respective ships from the perspective of their opponent's viewscreen, but that's a work environment: Corporate Telepresence.

However, when they get a call in their quarters, or even with the usual ship-to ship call (especially with a hostile, alien species) it's usually just a shot of the face and shoulders -- just like with the FaceTime feature on the new iPhones.

At work, we're much more aware of our surroundings, we groom ourselves, and we get dressed for business. When telepresence technologies are used, they are in completely controlled circumstances.

Video conference calls at work are scheduled, as usually they are confined to conference rooms where a number of people at each side of the video link have to gather. If someone is being focused on for any particular time, it's usually the head and shoulders area and people are prepared in these situations to be seen and heard.

Excuse me, but do I look bloated? I'm feeling kind of self-conscious today. Oh, and you have five minutes to surrender your vessel to the Cardassian Empire or we blow your ship up.

In Star Trek and movies like 2001 and Blade Runner, they actually got video calling and telepresence right. For starters, in these movies and shows, you frequently see these video calls as being screened before a picture shows up. Secondly, you only tend to see a person's face, because people don't want to get caught off-guard in their living room or their bedroom with half (or less than half) of their clothes on or appearing in a casual, unkempt way.

For what it's worth, I'm leaving out the adult applications of telepresence for those who WANT to be naked on video. That's an entirely different conversation and outside the scope of this article.

In an age where we can now easily move from point-to-point transmitting VGA or 1 or 2 Megapixels to full 720p full-motion HD video representations of bodies and faces in sharp detail, along with every pore and imperfection using relatively inexpensive hardware, people will become very self-conscious of making ad-hoc video calls especially if their bodies and wider fields of view of their homes and personal spaces are exposed.

And nobody will want to receive these calls unsolicited.

Deckard calls Rachael on a Bell System video phone in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982)

So what about technologies like Apple's FaceTime? I'm not going to argue that this isn't a killer feature for the device, and certainly the commercials portray a more human and emotional aspect to linking people together using the technology.

But as in Sci-Fi, FaceTime is a good application of telepresence because it allows the users at each end to be selective, and because the field of view is limited to the face (and not in super-sharp, 720p or 1080p detail yet) it allows for some privacy if needed.

Still, I think technologies such as FaceTime will be the exception rather than the rule, and price, while not the primary factor, is definitely going to have some influence as to how quickly the technology is used.

4G data plans are going to have to be fairly inexpensive to allow mobile video calling on smartphones to be common place, and from what the industry is telling us, we're more likely to see tiered data plans that might make people think twice before phoning video when the meter is running if it costs $2 a minute or more to make a 4G video call.

And I don't even want to get into the issue of competing protocol standards for video calling. That needs to get sorted out way before we get into a "You can't call my Revue or my Droid from your iPhone or vice versa because you use FaceTime or Umi instead" situation.

And I've said in regards to streaming video in hotels and use of other public Wi-Fi hotspots, the accompanying backbone public infrastructure to make these calls more commonplace than for just arranged corporate video meetings via WAN or point-to-point tunneling is going to have to be beefed up considerably.

You think the download speeds at a hotel are bad from congestion and shared segmentation? Try doing hotel video calls from an iPhone or Android device like the EVO 4G -- the upload speeds are even worse.

Even if the 4G and public Wi-Fi bandwidth and Internet backbone is beefed up, however, there's one other thing that's nagging me about video calling, and that has to do with the generation of customer that companies like Apple, Logitech and Cisco think they are marketing to.

As far as I can tell, the only people who might even be remotely interested in this sort of thing are Gen-X and Boomers, who want to see their children and grandchildren over long distances.

It's no secret that Apple's FaceTime commercials strongly feature children talking to parents and grandparents. But Generation Y? Give me a break. We're talking about an entire demographic that prefers to communicate over texting and FaceBook rather than make voice calls, so that they can shield themselves from regular human contact as necessary.

Have you ever actually tried to call a Millennial on the phone and have more than a 1 minute conversation without them telling you to text instead because of how awkward and uncomfortable you've made them feel for intruding on their personal space and time?

So now Cisco, Google, Logitech and Apple actually believes that this entire young generation of reclusive prima donnas would be willing at look you directly in the face or profile a larger section of their body using a high-definition camera while they talk to you on the phone, or when they are lying on the couch in their snuggies in their living room or on a dorm room bed?

No, I just don't see that happening. Not even when they grow up.

Will video calling and personal telepresence ever catch on, no matter how cheap or easy it is? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: 4G, Apple, Cisco, Privacy


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Totally agree.

    Many, possibly most people will regard this as a nightmare technology!
    • RE: Why personal telepresence will fail: it ain't the price


      Americans are so touchy about their "privacy". Would it surprise you that there are cultures that don't regard this as important. I expect India will lead the world in video calls.

      I could just as easily extrapolate from Americans' obvious desire to appear on reality TV to say that it will be taken up in droves.

      You also fail to mention that a lot of people already web call with a technology that's used by over 90% of the planet - MS Messenger.

      Essentially you are just blowing bubbles. You have no actual data and to suggest Gen Y uses texting and facebook because they want to "shield themselves from human contact" is just stupid. This tech is cheaper, that's why younger people use it. What do they use it for? Human contact (and don't bother with face to face or talking being different - it's all just data to the brain).

      Must have been a slow weekend Jason.
      • "You have no actual data"


        "You have no actual data"

        you state that, "You also fail to mention that a lot of people already web call with a technology that's used by over 90% of the planet - MS Messenger.

        Well where is your data?
      • RE: Why personal telepresence will fail: it ain't the price

        @tonymcs Americans are absolutely touchy about their privacy. Considering that I write for a primarily American audience, and not the rest of the world, I'm addressing concerns specific to our market, not anyone else's.

        In regards to India and other markets, I think at least some of those countries are more concerned about keeping their citizens out of abject poverty than placing video calls. The majority of Indians live in so much squalor that acquiring technology is extremely low on the priority list for the average citizen, let alone those who are privileged enough to feed their families.

        In terms of proof or data, I'll offer this -- over the weekend I received the following email from an employee of CISCO, which is one of the companies that manufactures the video phone units:


        I had to chuckle reading your article. You are dead on target. I work for Cisco. Everybody has video phones of one sort or another - NOBODY uses them. Not at their desk, not during WebEx meetings - nada.

        I even made movie about how I'd been working for Cisco for years an nobody ever called me on my video phone. I posted it on our own internal version of YouTube - about 2 years later someone saw my video and called me for fun - they were the first to ever call and it basically freaked me out. I didn't know what was happening because for long time I'd been using the camera to see who was in the hallway and had forgotten I'd turned it back towards me.

        Even internal telepresence when used to meet your comrades in Bangalore, you only use it once, after that you've already seen their mugs enough!"[/i]

        Human contact is all just "data to the brain"? Really.
      • RE: Why personal telepresence will fail: it ain't the price

        I cannot agree with you.
        I look at all the calls I make in a day; home work other.... (btw I work remotely in my job) and if I ask myself "would I want this call to be a video call?"; in over 95% I would reply "No".

        There are exceptions but these I do not see driving public adoption of the technology.

        My work, I have access to full video conferencing. I think I have used it 2x in the last couple of years....

        This article (as it applies to the US market) is spot on.
      • Why go to all the trouble of viewing someone's face

        when it is the conversation that is important, not the view.

        Language is the communication, not sight.

        Unless you plan on writing down all that which you needed to say for me to read off the screen.
        Tim Cook
    • RE: Why personal telepresence will fail: it ain't the price

      @peter_erskine@... While as a geek I think it would be cool. I do think there is the whole "hidden" idea behind the phone that will keep from becoming a reality. While nightmare is probably strong, bad from a social perspective is probably more accurate. Why do you think social media and texting are so popular? People can hide behind the Avatar or text.
  • Telepresence 131 years old & still struggles to find customers

    The tech concept is a lot older than the article suggests.

    There were working models in Nazi Germany (the Germans were rolling out telepresence to Reich post offices before WWII interrupted their plans) and Bell Labs had test models in 1957.

    But telepresence engineering and artistic drawings dated back more than 130 years as this gallery shows:

    • RE: Why personal telepresence will fail: it ain't the price

      @Natecochrane Yeah, very early stuff. The Germans and Bell I knew about, but I was unaware there were actual applied commercial applications earlier than say, 1965 or so.
      • Telepresence 131 years old & still struggles to find customers

        @jperlow The Germans got no more than a handful of sites into production before the war intervened. But it's interesting that the concept was known (and its marketing materials largely distributed!) long before.

        The early French artistic impressions evoke the same emotions that Apple and Cisco and others try to in their modern materials.
  • RE: Why personal telepresence will fail: it ain't the price

    The reason why I am negative on the Umi is that it doesn't interoperate with any business telepresence or videoconferencing (H.323 or Cisco). Working from home is clearly the killer app for home telepresence. Many people would get or stay dressed up for a 10:00 PM call with Beijing or Bangalore, if it meant they didn't have to drive into the office. Presumably this will come, but, until it does, I don't think this device will catch on much.
    • Hmmm... not the killer app for the umi

      @TMEubanks I know people who use TP in their homes. They do it from their home office, at their computer. I work from home myself, and I AM NOT going to use my TV and my living room to have video collaboration sessions.
  • Ustream generation is already there.

    Generation y has already taken to the live streaming technology with services like Ustream, YahooLive and others. It's already happening online now, on a computer's web cam. Privacy is off little concern to this generation, it's all about social, connecting with friends, fun.<br><br>I could see this generation as being the ones to really popularize video calls on devices like the iPhones and iPod Touches. Forget the expensive Logitech and the Umi boxes, way too expensive to really take off. No ones going to pay a monthly fee for video calls.
    • RE: Why personal telepresence will fail: it ain't the price

      @dave95. Those live streams you mention are all about Gen Y's presumption that anything can be made into entertainment.

      But they AREN'T about spontaneous unplanned reveals of people au natural. Maybe these people aren't doing hollywood makeup and lighting for their little live web streams, but they're not totally unprepared.

      And live streams like that aren't typically going out to people who have relationships which MATTER to most people. Its not a business associate, or a client, or even your grandma. Its putting on a show for the world, even if its low budget and mostly off the cuff.
      Snark Shark
  • FaceTime also has a feature which overcomes the privacy issue

    Recall, Jason, that with FaceTime technology, each participant in the video conference can transmit a POV to the other party instead of just transmitting his or her own image. This is a feature that you didn't expound on but I believe it is the one feature that will ultimately become the main reason behind a FaceTime session.

    For example, I think most persons wish to convey some interesting observation to another person rather than just having a video face-to-face meeting. Even Apple cites this feature in their promotion of this technology.

    "Hello Grandma. Look what your granddaughter is doing now!" ... and then the FaceTime session changes from a simple face to face video exchange to a more pleasing experience.
  • RE: Why personal telepresence will fail: it ain't the price

    Video calling has been available on 3G camera phones since 2005 or 2006.
  • RE: Why personal telepresence will fail: it ain't the price

    I think you have to keep in mind that expectations of technology and privacy are not constant, and people will adapt relatively quickly if the incentives exist to make it worthwhile.

    I don't think it's a question of the ultimate success or failure of Telepresence. I believe it will ultimately become ubiquitous and people will boggle that we ever had this conversation. It's more a question of whether it will succeed in the home in the short term.

    The history lesson is interesting, but not really relevant; yes, people have wanted to make this work for decades, but they also lacked the wherewithal to do it in such a way that didn't completely suck. Older style video conferencing systems were really *annoying* with their low resolution, poor frame rate, high latency, etc. Having a conversation on a system like that was never fluid or natural like having a telephone conversation. You can't really compare it to the 1080p, 30fps systems available in 2010.

    As for who might adopt such a thing... well, I have conversations over Skype with my parents, and they don't mind my bad hair days. I suspect that "keeping in touch with family" will be a major driver for personal TP. That's why I'd consider it. Once personal TP adoption increases, I suspect we'll also see a demand for interoperability with more costly business units, especially among telecommuters, and I would be very much surprised if we didn't see the various vendors making interoperability a goal, if not a priority.
    • RE: Why personal telepresence will fail: it ain't the price

      @spatula6 It's not just about the history, it's about the psychology. Using Skype--and the ways Skype can be used--is somewhat different than what the umi and Revue are attempting. Take a look at the different ways you wish to utilize your living room. Then ask if you want all those functions coopted by taking a call, then add the inconvenience of taking that call if it's not expected/scheduled, and finally, at the end, add price. Facebook and Skype (and likely FaceTime going forward) will do a fine job with "Keeping in touch with family," but true personal TP adoption will not likely be driven by that.
    • RE: Why personal telepresence will fail: it ain't the price

      Now if I could make a call as follows:
      {all vocal}
      "Call Bob; video off"
      System calls Bob disabling oputgoing video....


      {all vocal}
      "Call Bob; video on; Den"
      System calls Bob routing video to flatscreen in my den.......

      I might, maybe, just possibly, I think, use it.....

      We have the technology, cost is prohibitive, ease of use is not there.....

      till then..... nope.
  • A question ZDNet should ask more often.

    "So if the technology is so cheap, why has it never actually caught on outside the workplace?"

    This is a question ZDNet should ask more often. Because there are countless examples of ZDNet saying something will take off or is even "inevitable" (LOL, I laugh every time a blogger says that), yet never comes to pass even when the price and the tech are there.

    "What would it cost, really, to make a simple 2MP SVGA/XVGA video phone as a consumer appliance paired with an inexpensive IP calling service such as Skype or Google Video nowadays, $100?"

    All you really need is Skype and a webcam. If you really wanna go cheap and ignore the 2 MP number, it can be as low as $10.