Back in October of 2010, networking kingpin Cisco announced a product with the improbable name of ūmi. The company called it a teleprescence device, but here’s what it really was: the world’s coolest videophone. You connected it to your TV and your home network and used it to call other ūmi owners, who showed up on your screen in remarkably life-like 1080p high-definition. It was like turning a big-screen HDTV into a portal into somebody else’s living room.
Sadly, ūmi was also seriously pricey. At first, it cost $599–plus another $24.99 a month for service. And really, you needed to double those prices, because it was only of interest if you knew at least one other household with a ūmi. Which, come to think of it, you probably didn’t.
When ūmi failed to instantly capture the world’s imagination, Cisco largely lost interest, too. This week, the company said it had officially discontinued the product.
But you know what? Even though ūmi flopped big time, I still had faith in the concept. For most of us, the living-room TV is still the best display in the house, and the one in closest proximity to where a lot of life goes on. If you want to spend some long-distance quality time with family members or friends, leaning back and seeing them on a giant screen beats hunching over a laptop on a desk.
That’s why I was heartened by the arrival of TelyHD, the first product from a startup called Tely Labs. Conceptually, this HDTV add-on is the second coming of ūmi, but in a package that has a better shot at success in the real world.
For one thing, the price tag is far more plausible. The hardware is $249, and there’s no service fee.
Just as important, TelyHD doesn’t think that all your friends and family members also have TelyHD. Instead, it makes a more realistic assumption: that a lot of them use Skype, or can be convinced to do so. You can use it to place video calls to other TelyHD users with Skype accounts, but it also lets you connect with folks who use Skype on any computer. That makes TelyHD part of a vast existing network of users–in total, Skype says, it hosts 300,000,000 minutes of video calls per day.
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Tely Labs loaned me a TelyHD unit for review. Roughly the size of a generously-proportioned sub sandwich, it sits on top of your TV, looking like a cousin of Microsoft’s Kinect for the Xbox 360. (Alternatively, you can mount it on a tripod.) On its front is a wide-angle, high-definition Webcam that’s designed to capture a good percentage of your living room, so that multiple people can be in the picture at once. On the back are connectors for hooking the gizmo up to your TV and wired network, plus a USB port and a slot for SD memory cards. The wired connection is ideal if you’ve got an Ethernet jack near your TV; if you don’t, built-in Wi-Fi lets Tely talk to the network wirelessly.
Once you’ve set up the hardware, you log into your Skype account. And there they are: all your Skype contacts, right there on your TV screen. You can place and receive video calls regardless of whether the person on the other other end is using Skype on a computer or another TelyHD. (As with Skype in its more traditional form, you can also make voice-only calls.)
If you sign into Skype on TelyHD and stay online, other Skype users on your approved list will be able to call you: When they do, the TelyHD itself alerts you by ringing like a phone. You press a button on the remote to take the call. But if you happen to be using your TV to watch TV at the time, you’ll also have to use a button on its remote–or on the TV itself–to switch to the Tely’s input, or you won’t be able to see and hear your caller. It’s a tricky enough process that it probably makes sense to coordinate Telly calls in advance so that everybody’s ready.
When the person on the other end of the call has a TelyHD, you get some nifty extra features. For one thing, if he or she doesn’t answer, you can leave a message–a video-enhanced voicemail that the receipient can play back later.
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You can also liven up video sessions by sharing photos. Copy them onto an SD card or thumb drive and stick it into the TelyHD, and when you pull the pics up with the remote, your Tely-using buddies on the other end will see them, too. They can even copy the photos you show them to an SD card or thumb drive on their TelyHD.
From the setup process to the user interface, a lot of care clearly went into this gadget’s design. Tely Labs has done a nice job of building something with appeal for everyone from Skype junkies to technophobic grandparents.
The one part I found disappointing was a significant one, though, and one where ūmi excelled: video quality.
The “HD” in the name “TelyHD” raises expectations from the get-go. But in my tests, at least, video calls never had anything like the razor-sharp, you-are-there feel of Cisco’s product. It’s not that the picture was dreadful–it just wasn’t fabulous when I used it for calls with a friend who was also reviewing the device, as well as one with Tely Labs’ CEO. People looked slightly fuzzy, as they usually do on Webcams, and details such as patterns on clothing were lost. (I made most of my calls over a wired network connection in hopes of maximizing the video quality.)
Speaking of fuzzy, TelyHD lets you use the remote to zoom, pan and tilt your video for the benefit of the person on the other end. These effects are accomplished through digital trickery rather than optics, and therefore degrade the image quality further.
It’s unrealistic, of course, to expect a $249 videophone to perform on a par with a much costlier setup like ūmi. With TelyHD, the HD in question is 720p, with 720 lines of horizontal resolution. In theory, that should be enough for a crisp picture. But the device also has to deal will the vagaries of bandwidth. It’s meant to work with a broadband connection that can do 1-Mbps in both directions. That’s a far less daunting requirement than the original version of ūmi, which needed 3.5-Mbps of upload and download bandwidth–a level of service which most homes simply don’t have.
Even when the Tely picture is on the muddy side, the experience feels reasonably natural. When the hardware is short on bandwidth, it switches to a standard-definition mode, so that the video and audio stay in sync. You can also adjust it to deal with questionable lighting environments such as my living room, which is illuminated mostly by one lamp in a corner. (Video looks best when there’s lots of light evenly-dispersed throughout the room.)
Ultimately, TelyHD is dependent on multiple factors: broadband and network quality, lighting and the general robustness of the Skype service, which does most of the heavy lifting required to make calls happen. With your setup, in your home, TelyHD calls could look better– or worse — than mine. And unless you saw ūmi in action, you might obsess less over the video quality than I did.
TelyHD isn’t a transcendent breakthrough, but it’s fun and affordable. It’s also full of potential: The hardware runs a custom version of Google’s Android operating system and packs a powerful Nvidia Tegra 2 chip, the same processor in many smart phones. Tely Labs says it plans to offer upgrades that will broaden the box’s capabilities with features such as social networking and games, and may improve the video quality. The better this gadget gets, the higher the chances that it’ll wind up in lots of households — and the more households that it’s in, the better its chances of becoming the game-changer that ūmi never was.
McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he’s @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on TIME.com.