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Geoff Daily

App-Rising.com covers the development and adoption of broadband applications, the deployment of and need for broadband networks, and the demands placed on policy to adapt to the revolutionary opportunities made possible by the Internet.

App-Rising.com is written by Geoff Daily, a DC-based technology journalist, broadband activist, marketing consultant, and Internet entrepreneur.

App-Rising.com is supported in part by AT&T;, however all views and opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

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June 29, 2007 1:52 PM

Killer App Sighting in UTOPIA: Videocalling on Your TV

In a post earlier this week about my recent trip to UTOPIA I discussed their open fiber network, suggesting that while it offers a revolutionary alternative to closed private networks, the reality has not yet lived up to the promise.

Now, I want to dive into one area where UTOPIA’s full-fiber network—which enables symmetrical 15Mbps connectivity for $40 a month—has begun to realize it’s potential, namely, establishing their community as a testbed for big-bandwidth applications.

UTOPIA’s network has held court to a number of companies interested in testing applications that can make use of the capacious bandwidth provided by fiber. Unfortunately they’re under the strictest of NDAs with most all of them, preventing them from discussing any partner, save one.

That one is TVBLOB, an Italian company that may be on the verge of launching a true Killer App for fiber.

On their website, TVBLOB describes themselves as “a technology development company seeking to radically alter what you can do with the common television set.”

Of course, any time you’re talking about transforming TV there will undoubtedly be a set-top box (STB) involved, and when I saw that was the case with TVBLOB I have to admit I nearly groaned out loud. I’ve seen box after box try to establish itself in the living room, and only two have succeeded in any real way: TiVo and Slingbox.

But I knew I needed to give this a shot as TVBLOB will soon be offering the first box I’ve seen built to enable high quality videoconferencing in the living room through the TV. So as I sat down for a conversation with Fabrizio Caffarelli, TVBLOB’s founder, and Lisa Morris, their VP of Sales and Marketing, I did so with a mix of anticipation and trepidation.

The TVBLOB box is smallish; bigger than an Apple TV but much smaller than a TiVo. And in this case it was connected to what was at least a 40” LCD TV hung on the wall of a conference room in DynamicCity’s offices. A small camera was mounted on a tripod which rested on a table underneath the TV that also housed an audio mixer of some sort that linked a pair of wireless mics.

In all honesty, it was hard to envision that setup in a living room as there were wires everywhere, making the scene somewhat unsightly. TVBLOB does have the advantage of being built to work with the technology you already have, though, and later in our conversation I learned that they are actively considering ways to adapt peripherals to better suit the living room environment, such as cameras that can mount on flat panel TVs and building a microphone into the remote control.

Initiating a call only took a couple of button pushes and we were live, opening a virtual window into their office on the other side of the ocean.

The quality of the video was impressive right from the get go. A definite step up from desktop videocalling applications as it filled the entire TV screen and, despite having a lot of people in the background moving around, the picture held up with very little of those blocky pixels you often see in online video.

It doesn’t quite reach the quality of video found in higher end, dedicated videoconferencing units produced by companies like Polycom, Cisco, and TANDBERG, though. It’s nowhere near DVD quality and is more akin to what you’d see on an older VHS tape.

But that’s OK because those products are thousands of dollars whereas TVBLOB’s pricing, while not yet finalized, will be more on the order of hundreds of dollars, or even less than that if done as tens of dollars a month.

In terms of the quality of the conversation we were able to have, it was quite respectable. The sound held the whole way through with only a couple of dropped words, and the video never loses synch with the audio, which is something I find to be horribly disorientating.

I did notice a bit of a lag as I could hear my voice coming out of the speakers in Italy, and it made any attempt to interject a comment or question somewhat troublesome. But to quantify it I’d say it was better than the lags I remember hearing in the early days of VoIP when I was calling from Madison, WI to Minnesota, and now that video’s entered the equation it makes it much easier as we could communicate through gestures and expressions without having to rely solely on lagging audio.

All in all it was a very positive experience for me. I felt very at ease, and I could see how this holds the potential to really open up the use of videocalling to a much larger group of people.

And the best part is, it’s an application that loves bandwidth. Fabrizio said it could run on as little as 512Kbps, but his body language suggested he wasn’t particularly satisfied with what you could do with that amount of bandwidth. Where it really starts working well is at 1Mbps, and in Utah we were cruising along about where the box currently tops out, around 2Mbps.

Remember, that’s 2Mbps of symmetrical bandwidth. And because it involves real-time communication that needs to be a steady connection otherwise any drop in throughput will be very noticeable. This level of bandwidth doesn’t quite make it a fiber-only application, but it will push the upload capacity of most all cable systems and the overall capacity of a lot of DSL connections to the limit.

What I also found compelling about their solution, which is set to launch sometime later this year, are their plans to build out the capabilities of their box to include the greatest hits of other STBs, including recording TV shows, placeshifting video, extending the reach of media from the PC to the TV screen, and providing a platform through which content can be delivered directly from the Internet.

This truly is a compelling vision for what the future of this product can be, and you’ll be able to read more about them over the coming weeks and months at KillerApp.com as we track their progress on the road to becoming the next Killer App.

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