The video phone has for the most part been a thing of the future and of ancient Jetson cartoons. It’s not that it hasn’t been available, it’s more that no one has come up with a good reason to use it.
But it looks that someone — specifically Packet8 — has taken steps to pitch video telephony in a way that makes it something more current, and useful. In short: Forget business, get it in the home.
Over the past couple of years, there have been a handful of video phones available using SIP that have gained very little traction. I’ve tried a couple for 5 minutes, said “Cool,” and never used them again.
For some reason, video telephony has been focused on the business sector, as though seeing the person you’re talking to on a 4-inch screen will make an important transaction go a bit more smoothly.
When it comes to work, I’ve got a look made for voice, not video. I won’t remember to brush my hair when the phone rings in order to appear business-like. And I won’t wear a tie to the office daily in the off-chance the CEO of AT&T calls to chat about the future of internet communications.
Here at Fall VON in Boston, Packet8 announced a new offering called the Freedom Unlimited VideoPhone Plan (Packet8 Video Phone Plans) tailor-made for the home. For $20 a month you can make unlimited video phone calls over a softphone client (made by Counterpath) on the Packet8 network.
It’s a good start.
Of course, with a small amount of tech knowledge and the right gear, any two parties can do what Packet8 offers for free. I’ve been videoing with my daughters back home in San Francisco nightly from my hotel room the past few days using the built-in cameras on the Mac I carry and the one that sits semi-permanently in our living room at home.
Using the built-in capabilities of iChat in OSX, it’s been relatively easy (save for the occasional glitch caused by the very poor broadband connection at the severely overpriced Sheraton I’m at) and free (save for the usurious $10 Mr. Sheraton is taking each day so that I can access the internet).
To connect this way, my wife and I have to arrange to be at the computer at the same time, usually by cell phone. Packet8’s offering removes this inconvenience in that I can just “call” home from my computer, and the computer in our living room will “ring.”
Ultimately though, the way video telephony will take off is to take it off both the phone and the computer. The right way is to make it part of the home entertainment system. The hardware to do that is already, for the most part, readily and cheaply available.
Imagine a typical eyeball camera attached to the top of your TV and connected directly to a home theater PC. Place a well-made microphone at your coffee table (Hello Polycom . . . you can do this . . . are you listening?).
Now, sit down with your kids on the sofa and click to call their grandma with a similar set-up. In an instant, and with a big enough TV, your mother-in-law is in your living room, sitting down in front of you. Click, and she’s gone with no need to call a cab.
We’ll see this because it makes sense and its cheap to do. But first we have to get over the idea of the video phone as a business tool (and as a way for geeks to geek).
You’ve made it part way, Packet 8. Now take the next step and make it something we can all use. Someone will soon.