Iniating calls with a VoIP tool, like Skype

Last week, I wrote about issues in providing videoconferencing to the aged. Later, I refined a new interface plan discussed in the comments. I think this would be a very good way for tools like Skype to work, so I am making an independent posting, and will encourage Skype, Google video chat (and others) to follow this approach.

First, it should be possible to reliably attach a PSTN phone number with an online identity. This can be done by the person who owns them (with a security trick) or by the person who wants to call them.

If a user goes to their tool — quite possibly through a USB handset with a dial pad, or through a dedicated IP phone — the system should check if this number belongs to a user, and if that user is online. If the user is online, then just make the call through the VoIP system.

If the user is not online, make the call through the PSTN, ie. SkypeOut. If/when the called party answers, the caller can say, “I’m calling you with Skype, are you near your computer?”

The called party can then go to their computer and one of two things can happen.

  1. The moment they sign on to Skype, it can notice that they have this SkypeOut call underway, because it gets a message from the buddy who called via SkypeOut. Immediately it pops up a dialog box asking to OK transfer of the call. If they approve, the audio will switch to pure Skype, and when that is good, the phone will be hung up.
  2. Failing that, if the user logs on and attempts a Skype call to the contact who is on the PSTN call with them, Skype should notice that at the other end, and answer the new call by connecting it to the PSTN call.

When connecting the calls together, there should be a brief bridge when both the PSTN phone and computer are connected, and then later (or upon hangup) the PSTN leg would be terminated. However, for those who don’t have a cordless phone or phone by the computer, it would be nice if they could just hang up their PSTN call, go to the computer, and join the conversation. To facilitate that, the presence of a call 30 seconds in the past should still enable this quick re-setup.

The experience for the user who places the call (possibly a senior) is very simple. Place a call. Mention it is on the computer. At some point, without having to do anything, the audio switches and is now higher quality, and video can be started — automatically if the two buddies are set up for automatic video.

For the receiving user, the interface is pretty simple. Go the the computer, log on, possibly click on a buddy or approval box. Then hang up the regular phone (or possibly have already hung it up not too long ago.)

To encourage this, Skype could sell a SkypeOut plan that allows an unlimited number of very short PSTN calls that are followed by a transfer to VoIP for a low monthly fee, like $1/month.

This would allow a very simple UI in the senior home. An ordinary telephone handset sits next to the computer. You pick it up, dial a number, your grandchild answers, and at some point into the communication the video call begins on the screen. This is as close to the familiar interface as we can get.

Now, as for associating numbers and buddies. If this is done by the caller, there is no security aspect. However, it’s much better if it can be done (just once) by the target. To do that, you would declare a phone number and the system would call you. The voice on the end would ask you to enter the touch tones you see on your screen. This would confirm ownership of that number.

The “hang up first” interface question is a bit more complex. I do like the idea of having it be very automated. You sign in (or return to your computer that is already signed in) and bang — you are in the call. However, if you hung up the phone a while ago you might have gone to your computer for other purposes than to continue the call. The caller might have a dialog saying, “The called party hung up. Are you waiting for them to go to their computer?” And if you click yes, then do an automatic start. Otherwise make it manual.

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His name is Brad Templeton. You figure it out.
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