Cisco Consumer Telepresence

Today Cisco formally announced its consumer targeted telepresence product, named umi. The package, priced at US$ 599, includes a camera, set-top box and a remote. In addition, customers will need to pay a US$ 24.99 monthly service fee. As part of the monthly service fee consumers are assigned a phone number, access to unlimited video calling, video voicemail, video uploads to social networking sites, and profile/call management.

Cisco’s solution is compatible with Google Chat on the PC so early adopters will have a wider range of people to communicate with. Even with Google Chat compatibility Cisco’s consumer TP product will face some hurdles, all of which Cisco is prepared to face head-on, citing its commitment to the long haul.

With a relatively high price point and perhaps more troublesome the monthly fee, the initial reception by consumers could very well be mixed. Cisco has taken the high-end/quality approach to video conferencing/chat and considering the price and economic climate it might seem divergent with current consumer behavior and preferences. In addition to get the full experience both parties must have Cisco’s umi product installed at their respective locations which ostensibly doubles the price of admission. There are also the technology requirements – the consumer must have a broadband connection which supports a minimum upstream speed of 1.5 Mbps for 720p or 3.5 Mbps for 1080p. So why is Cisco releasing a product aimed at the high end, when a number of far less expensive alternatives exist (e.g. webcams/Skype/Google Chat and the upcoming Microsoft Kinect)?

For the answer to have its full depth one must first experience Cisco’s enterprise telepresence solution – without this experiential cue it is far too easy to simply say “it would be nice but not for the money.” Experiencing Cisco’s enterprise telepresence firsthand, for the first time, is truly unique and for lack of better words quite spectacular. You wouldn’t think so, but seeing the telepresence participants “sitting across” from the virtual conference table has the uncanny ability to bend one’s perceptions of “reality” and forces you to remind yourself that some of the meeting participants are virtual. The experience really does have the same impact and effect as meeting someone in person.

Granted, this implementation is not an enterprise installment where Cisco controls every facet of the viewing experience (from the lighting to the placement of equipment and even color of the room) but if umi can capture part of that experience there is strong reason to believe this product, despite the price and monthly fee, will resonate with consumers. In order for this to happen though retailers and service providers alike will have to demonstrate or convince consumers of the intrinsic value with quality of experience (right now Verizon and Best Buy/Magnolia are distribution partners along with ad campaign featuring Ellen Page, mall demonstrations, and “The Oprah Winfrey Show”).

At the end of the day umi promises to make the distances that separate us from friends and family that much “shorter.” Yes we have social networking, phones, text messages, etc. but through it all there is a lack of intimacy inherent with all of these technologies and while video chat will continue to grow as a communications channel (e.g. growth amongst mobile/portable devices supporting this feature) it too often fails to create the same experience of “being there.” If Cisco can emulate this personal element and live up to its branding as the “human network” then perhaps the price won’t seem as high – after all putting a price on seeing your loved ones whenever you want is hard to do, and to some this ability would be “priceless.” We also have to remain cognizant that this is the first generation of products and as subsequent generations or units come out at lower price points the number of users will grow, adding value to the TP network. We will see when pre-orders take place reportedly on October 6th from and October 18th from Best Buy – availability to consumers is expected on November 14th in Best Buy/Magnolia Home Theater stores and Cisco’s umi website.

Link to Cisco’s Press Release: