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

Personal telepresence systems will fail to take hold due to self-consciousness and a desire for privacy.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

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.

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