Umi uses a console device, a remote and a camera unit with five microphones that sits on top of the TV, Cisco announced in San Francisco on Wednesday.
It will cost US$599 for the equipment and $24.99 per month for a service from Cisco. The service will include cloud-based contact lists and stored video. The system can be ordered now and will be available beginning Nov. 14 at the Magnolia high-end electronics stores at Best Buy. Verizon Communications, which has been running trials of the service, will offer it to its home broadband customers beginning early next year.
In addition to talking live with each other, users will be able to show videos recorded earlier. If they miss a call, the caller can leave a video message that can be retrieved on the TV, a PC or a mobile phone. For privacy, there is a shutter on the camera that can be activated, leaving just audio coming from the home.
In addition to buying the equipment and monthly service, users will need to have a broadband service with at least 1.5M bps (bits per second) both downstream and upstream in order to enjoy Umi, Cisco officials said. Those speeds will deliver 720p video. For 1080p, users will need 3.5M bps both downstream and upstream.
Consumers who don't have Umi will be able to participate in the video sessions through Google Video Chat on a PC, at a lower level of quality. No other third-party video services are supported at this time.
Analysts say Cisco's introduction is a big step forward for home videoconferencing, though the short-term prospects for that concept aren't yet clear.
"It takes videoconferencing into the living room, which actually takes it into the mainstream," said Wainhouse Research analyst Andrew Davis.
"I think we're coming into the age where visual communications is not only accepted: it's becoming widely expected," Davis said. Moving it beyond webcams and laptops is critical, he said. "People really want it on the television. They don't want it on the PC."
However, the mass market for this type of high-end product is probably far off, analyst Kurt Scherf of Parks Associates said. Only 20 percent of broadband households use webcams for videoconferencing today, he said.
"If only 20 percent of households have done it with dirt-cheap pricing and easy setup, how many are actually going to do this for a $600 product and a $25-a-month subscription?" Scherf said.
"The target markets for this are made up of specific niche consumers, at this point at least," Scherf said. One of those will be people with elderly relatives who want to not only communicate with them but see whether they look well, he predicted.
Much rides on the product for Cisco, which has been promising consumer telepresence almost since the introduction of the high-definition conferencing system for enterprises in 2006.
"More market research has gone into this product [than] perhaps any other product in the history of Cisco," Wainhouse's Davis said.
Umi is priced above $500, which is often considered a "sweet spot" for home electronics, but far below Cisco's TelePresence systems for business. One danger for Cisco is that Umi will cannibalize the existing TelePresence business, Davis said. He believes small businesses, in particular, will flock to the home product. The fact that Oprah Winfrey plans to use Umi on her show to bring in guests via video who can't travel to the studio might even boost its credibility for businesses.
Other vendors are also lining up to bring videoconferencing to high-definition TVs. At the International Consumer Electronics Show early this year, Panasonic and LG Electronics announced TVs with embedded Skype software. Panasonic's offering began shipping in May, and LG has said its product would be available by year's end.
Also on Wednesday, Logitech introduced HD video calling in its newly announced Logitech Revue with Google TV product.
"We believe consumers want the best and most seamless experience which means HD video calling not only from TV to TV, but also TV to PC or Mac (or vice versa)," Logitech said in a statement on Cisco's introduction. "We also believe consumers will want a free service and one that is integrated into a broader entertainment experience, which is why Logitech is excited to introduce an integrated HD video calling offering with Google TV."
The Umi system allows users to zoom in on something they want to show to the people on the other end of the connection, as well as pan the camera from one side of the room to the other and tilt it up and down. Subscribers can use it to record a video either to show later over Umi or to upload to YouTube or Facebook. There is no input for an external microphone.
When users first set up the system, they will be assigned a unique six-digit number that other Umi subscribers can use to call them. After the initial call, each party can add the other to their contact lists, in which each contact is represented by a profile picture.
Using the Umi remote, subscribers control the service through a "clover" interface with a center box and four surrounding icons representing different commands.