A close look at Cisco Umi Telepresence

Cisco's Umi Telepresence (that's "you-me") hopes to bring enterprise-level, 1080p video conferencing to your living room. Free video chatting services abound, but Cisco hopes to one-up the competition by providing a superior, high definition experience, right on your living room TV.

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Cisco's Umi Telepresence (that's "you-me") hopes to bring enterprise-level, 1080p video conferencing to your living room. Free video chatting services abound, but Cisco hopes to one-up the competition by providing a superior, high definition experience, right on your living room TV.

The Umi's HD camera sits on top of your television, affixed in place by an adjustable mounting bracket, so thinner HDTVs can get in on the action too. A simple remote control handles placing video calls and navigating the Umi's slick Clover UI, while a set top box tackles video streaming and audio decoding duties. This box can connect to your home network wirelessly, but there's a good chance you'll want to tether down with an ethernet cable or risk the pitfalls of a finicky wireless connection.

Once you're up and running, the Umi will stream fullscreen 1080p HD video to whomever is on the other end, provided they're equipped with the same hardware. You'll be able to place and receive video calls on webcam-equipped PCs by way of Google's video chat, but these are limited to 480p video, and won't be fullscreen. Fans of Skype and Apple's iChat are out of luck, for now.

Cisco Umi

Perhaps the most striking caveat is the price: $599 gets you all of the hardware, but there's also a $25 a month subscription fee. You're getting unlimited Umi video calls, video messaging and video storage via Umi's cloud service (more on that in a bit), but that's quite a price tag for functionality that's already available for far less, if not entirely free.

Why choose Cisco's Umi over your laptop's webcam, or a cheap webcam strapped onto your display? Cisco's banking on delivering an unparalleled user experience. And to be fair, it was fairly impressive. Tapping the Clover button on the remote places a cross-shaped widget onto the top right corner of the TV screen. Contacts are saved onto your umi account. You can choose them directly from the Clover's menu, or dial them directly, every device is assigned a unique 6 digit number. You can also enter a Google email address, if you're calling a Google video chat user.

Calling works much like a telephone. Cisco sat us in a faux-living room, and we called a Cisco employee, Lily, at her home. We picked her image from the list of contacts and after a brief ring or two the television show we were watching quickly snapped over to the video call. Video quality was clear, though colours including my dark red shirt appeared a bit oversaturated. But good luck blaming the camera when your mother complains about your washed out clothing. The camera has a fairly dynamic range of control; panning, tilting and zooming is speedy, and there's a great level of detail. The auto focus functionality was a bit slow, but it worked well enough.

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