Cisco Announces 1080p Umi Video Chat for Living Rooms

Alex Castle

Cisco announced a new HD video chat service named Umi Telepresence that will allow friends and family to connect with each other from the comfort and privacy of their living room in full 1080p HD.

In an event held in downtown San Francisco, Cisco invited press and analysts to get some hands-on experience with the home videoconferencing system. Here are the basic details and our initial thoughts on the product:

The Umi Telepresence system consists of a HD camera with a multi-microphone array, a set-top box that connects to a home network via a wired or wireless connection, and a small remote control. A high-speed connection of at least 1.5 megabits per second will be required to send and receive an HD stream. The service automatically downscales to 720p or 480p based on your connection speed.

The camera itself is about 16 inches long by about 4 inches deep. A mounting bracket allows you to easily attach the camera to a flat-screen HDTV. HDMI is supported. The set-top box is about the size of a DirectTV box. Cisco declined to state specifically what kind of hardware is in the box, but the company did say that it uses four independent processors, and that these processors are dedicated to specific tasks such as video, audio, and networking.

The interface consists of a small clover-sized module that sits in the top right-hand corner of the screen. One nice touch is that the Umi set-top box is a pass-through device, so you can answer and make video calls while watching TV. To address concerns around privacy, Umi will have a lens shutter and a parental lock. Users can also choose to receive calls only from their contacts, and can also block callers.

In our hands-on demonstration of the product, we made two separate calls and received a call from beta testers of the product. We confess to being impressed by the video quality. Video chat at 1080p creates a real sense of being in the same room as someone. Tiny amounts of lag are noticeable—enough to create microscopic delays in conversations, but not much more. Cisco told us that they’re seeing latency in the 200 millisecond range in typical usage.

It’s possible to record calls and to send video mail to friends and family. The Umi set-top box has no internal storage; instead, all videos are stored in the cloud on Cisco’s servers. You can retrieve video mail from the Umi web site. You can also set your account to transmit video mail via email.

The only real downside is the price. At $599 for the console and an extra $24.99 per month for the service itself, Umi is not cheap. Thankfully, the service is interoperable with Google Video Chat, which means users can talk to non Umi subscribers. It’s probable that the price will drop over time, but still.

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