This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY
In May, Comcast launched Skype (News - Alert) on Xfinity, enabling customers to get Skype on their TVs utilizing their set-top boxes. Skype has been working on video calling in the living room for quite some time, partnering with manufacturers of both HDTVs and Blu-ray players.
Competitors have also been playing in this space. The benefits of video calling in the living room are obvious – it’s a great way to connect with friends and family near and far from a comfortable environment where the whole family can be involved. Plus, the delivery of video calling into the heart of the home – the living room – is encouraging the shift from 1:1 video calls to group video calls, which, according to our user research, is found to be exciting, fun and inclusive by the families or individuals who try it.
Unfortunately, delivering on the simple promise of video communications in the living room is not easy. There are no less than seven major technical and business challenges to deliver video in the living room.
Far and away, the hardest problem is distributing the hardware and software to end users that they need for video calls in the living room. Users require a video camera, a microphone system, and software that can provide this functionality on their TVs. Distribution of hardware can be done through retail – though traditional stand-alone cameras can be expensive. Or, as in the case of our Comcast (News - Alert) partnership, it can be done through the cable operator. Software distribution may also be a challenge. Traditionally, users have been unable to download software from a marketplace. Instead, they have to buy the software bundled with the set-top box or TV and then rely on the provider to push updates. The Xbox and other gaming consoles holds a lot of promise here, and the top TV OEMs are also making advances in this area.
CostVideo calling in the living room requires cameras and microphones. This hardware is readily available on PCs, tablets and smartphones, but not on televisions, set-top boxes, or other living room equipment. In fact, only a very small handful of TVs come with embedded cameras. As such, most consumers must purchase additional hardware for this purpose. This may introduce a cost barrier as well. For example, the TelyHD – which includes Skype functionality inside of a set-top camera – retails for $249. But we expect the use of embedded TV cameras to spread, just as embedded cameras in laptops are now commonplace.
Consumers need to bring the hardware into their homes and then set it up. This usually involves the need to connect to a home Wi-Fi network, the plugging and unplugging of HDMI cables (which are often hard to reach behind the TV), and then the setup of a video calling account. This is a non-trivial process and increases user friction for adoption of the service.
In order to receive a video call, the other party needs to be online and reachable. For users to receive a call on their televisions, the TV (and the associated hardware, such as a set-top box or game console), must be powered on and ready to receive a call. Most users do not leave their TVs on all of the time, and many of these devices do not support low-power standby modes capable of receiving incoming calls as smartphones and tablets do (yet). Consequently, spur-of-the-moment calls are relatively infrequent today (though our research shows some users do). For this reason, users typically pre-arrange living room video calls, using a regular phone or a Skype call on a mobile device to make sure the other side is there, ready and able to take the call. For the kinds of calls that happen on the TV – weekend calls to the family – this kind of pre-arrangement is not a big problem.
Televisions have great displays for video, but are very weak on input and non-video output. Remote controls are frequently lost and have limited capabilities for entry – particularly of text – making instant messaging and search more complicated. Some systems have remotes that come with keyboards, but these have traditionally been cumbersome and unnatural to use. It can also be difficult to read text from a distance, limiting the amount of text that can be displayed on the screen, once again making IM and search difficult. Recent innovations in gesture controls, such as those provided by the Microsoft (News - Alert) Kinect – may improve this situation. Voice control is another technology that may likely improve the user interface.
Audio in the living room is hard. Users are far from the microphone, and there is frequently a lot of background noise. If a TV program is on and generating audio output, this can introduce an echo problem. Users frequently make calls with family members in the living room, so there are multiple speakers, further complicating the audio processing. For this reason, array microphones are often used to allow for better audio input processing.
The final challenge is video quality. The television is a large screen experience, and it places high demands on resolution and frame rate. VGA or better resolution is essential for a good experience. Achieving that requires a solid Internet connection with little background traffic on either end. Furthermore, the video quality on the TV is largely based on the connection and quality of the video camera used by the other person in the conversation. If that person is calling from a mobile phone, a tablet or laptop on a weak network, users in the living room viewing the call on their TV will likely have a negative experience even though their equipment is not at fault.
While video calling in the living room poses challenges, Skype and others are creating solutions to address them. We will undoubtedly see further innovation in the future as the industry seeks the right set of tools to create a premium video calling experience in the living room.
Jonathan Rosenberg is general manager of product strategy and research at Skype (www.skype.com).
Jonathan Rosenberg is chief technology strategist at Skype (www.skype.com).
Edited by Stefania Viscusi