Opinion: If you build it (in), they will video chat

HDTV-based video telephony has always been a holy grail of sorts. It's such a natural milieu for video chatting — big screen to get a broad view of the whole fam damily and all that.

But no TV-based video telephony system has been taken off, for one reason: You always had to buy two gadgets to attach to your HDTV to video telephonate, one for you and one for whomever you wanted to video telephonate with.

What we want is to video telephonate as we do on our laptops and desktop PCs, with anyone anytime, regardless of the HDTV we own and regardless of the video telephony gadget we have connected to it (if any).

Several recent developments — and a future trend too long in the unveiling — may expand this limited HDTV video telephony landscape and jump-start our (I believe) latent desire to WANT to video telephonate via our HDTVs.

At a pre-CES press soirée last week, a company called Biscotti demonstrated its eponymous HDTV video telephony gadget. Biscotti is named after the Italian cookie because the set-top gadget is exactly the same size and shape.

Biscotti is in many ways HDTV-based video telephony for the rest of us. It connects simply with two HDMI cables, one into it from your AV receiver or cable box, and one out to the TV, and comes with a simple remote control. And it's just $199 with no monthly service charge.

It's bite-size size and price puts Cisco's ridiculously over-priced (and pretentiously-named) ūmi telepresence system to shame. Ūmi requires a larger box and separate HDTV-top camera/mic thingy, is $400 for the 720p version and $500 for 1080p ($100 just to upgrade to 1080p?) — for ONE set-up, so twice as much for the needed two, plus a $10/month subscription at both ends.

What am I, Donald Frigg in' Trump?

With pan, tilt and zoom capabilities and simple, tiny remote control, Biscotti is (relatively) cheap, tiny and impressive — and doomed to failure, unless…

What's Wrong with It?

Like all previous and current HDTV-based video telephony solutions, such as Microsoft's Xbox 360 Video Kinect service, Biscotti is compatible only with itself for TV-to-TV chatting.

Regardless of its PC-to-HDTV video telephonic compatibility with Google video chat, this compatible-with-itself for HDTV-to-HDTV calling is a video telephony dead line.

What Biscotti needs is broader compatibility, perhaps with the Skype video telephony solutions being pushed by Panasonic, Sharp and Toshiba.

Except you have to buy a Skype-compatible HDTV first (or, a Panasonic BDT210 and BDT310 Blu-ray player), then you have to buy a separate Freetalk $130 or Panasonic $170 set-top webcam array.

But there may soon be a plethora of Skype-compatible video set-top boxes, perhaps even Biscotti.

Skype has being more aggressive about imbuing its VoIP capabilities into PC applications and consumer electronics devices such as set-top boxes.

So maybe Biscotti will soon get Skype compatibility.

A Waste of Time

Admittedly, however, all of these ad hoc set-top video telephony solutions are waste of digital discussion space. HDTV makers know how to make video chatting systemic on their wares and as ubiquitous as ATMs — built in Web cams.

I've been hocking Panasonic every chance I get about building a webcam into their sets. Requiring your consumers to buy a separate webcam/mic array device is no way to spur widespread adoption.

Building it in will, just as it did in laptop and desktop PCs and is becoming on smartphones. It's easier to find an honest politician than a smartphone, tablet, laptop and desktop PC without a built-in webcam.

People use the built-in webcams because they're… built-in. There is a there there.


I understand why HDTV makers don't build in webcams into their sets — it would raise the price of their sets when profit margins are already as thin as the sets themselves. And, they tell me, not everyone wants a built-in webcam.

Hogwash and balderdash, I say. You can start by including a built-in webcam in your top-of-the-line models to start. Then, as with every other new feature you decide to add to your HDTVs (such as 3D — which clearly no one wanted and few people use), you can gradually add built-in webcams into lower-priced models as the cost of including it drops down. Economies of scale and all that.

But there is a far more compelling reason for today's HDTV makers to build in Web cams: Apple.

It's an open secret that Apple will introduce an HDTV in the next 18 months. Among its other why-didn't-someone-do-this-before attributes, an Apple HDTV is sure to feature a built-in webcam compatible with every iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and Mac, and, if Apple is as smart as I think it is (and they are), Skype.

Suddenly, TV makers will be falling over themselves to build webcams into their HDTVs. And we'll all run happily into the living room to make video calls to whomever we want — because it's there.

Via Biscotti

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