Why Cisco Umi Doesn't Have What Chambers Wanted

With Cisco's introduction of its Umi home TelePresence system on Wednesday, a vision that Chairman and CEO John Chambers has been talking about for years finally saw the light of day. But one piece of his dream is still missing.

Cisco introduced TelePresence for enterprises in late 2006 and not long afterward began promising a version of the high-definition videoconferencing system for home use. Chambers, one of the biggest cheerleaders for that concept, has referred to it repeatedly over the past few years as part of his vision of a world connected over a high-speed "network of networks."

As Chambers predicted, Umi lets consumers with a high-definition TV and a good broadband connection see their family and friends while they talk, all in the comfort of their living rooms. But nearly every time he has referred to home TelePresence, Chambers has asked listeners to picture themselves watching a sports event on live TV while bantering back and forth long-distance with friends or relatives on the same TV. That's not possible in the Umi product Cisco announced on Wednesday.

The problem with making Chambers' vision a reality turns out to be more complicated than simply implementing a "picture-in-picture" feature in Umi, according to Philip Graham, vice president of engineering and chief technology officer for Cisco's TelePresence business.

While Umi users can talk to each other in real time, the action of a live sporting event often doesn't appear in a synchronized way in two different homes, Graham said. Part of the reason has to do with delays in the networks that deliver the broadcast across a continent from where it's taking place to where it's being viewed. But a major culprit is the DVR (digital video recorder), which can introduce a noticeable delay, he said. If a DVR is recording a program while it's being broadcast, typically the viewer is actually seeing the DVR's recording of the show, which it can't deliver in exactly real time, Graham said.

Therefore, if one viewer is recording the game on a DVR while the other isn't, or even if they both are, the action may not appear on both TVs at the same time. That makes it very awkward to talk about the game as it's taking place, Graham said.

Cisco wants to solve this problem, but to do so it will have to work with broadcasters and cable companies, which have never had to make sure shows were perfectly synchronized in viewers' homes, Graham said.

"It requires a lot more work, with people who don't have to do that today," Graham said.

One solution Cisco is looking at is a system of signaling to the broadcaster that a viewer is watching the event while participating in a Umi session with someone else who was also watching it. The idea is that the broadcaster, tipped off by that signal, could switch on a system to synchronize the program on both viewers' TVs, Graham said. He did not give an estimate for when this feature may be offered.

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