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.
While videoconferencing may not make sense for everyday use, I think it has special value for contact with distant relatives, particularly older ones who don't travel very much. They may not get to see the grandchildren, great-grandchildren or even children very often, and their lives are often marked by a particular loneliness, particular at senior homes.
But today's videoconferencing tools are getting quite good and will get even better. Skype now offers a 640x480 video call if you have enough bandwidth and CPU, which is not far off broadcast quality if not for the mpeg artifacts they have trying to save bandwidth. It's also pretty easy, as is Google's GMail video chat and several other tools. We're just a couple of years from HDTV level consumer video calling.
Many seniors, however are unfamiliar with or even afraid of many new technologies, and often in places where it's hard to get them. And this in turn means they can't readily set up computers, cameras or software. There is also still not internet access in many of the locations you might want ot reach, such as hospital deathbeds and senior homes. (Had they had the access in my stepfather's hospital room, I could have had a video conversation at the end; he died as I was heading to the plane.)
Video calls also offer extra human bandwidth, which is a big plus with people who are getting infirm, less strong of mind and hard of hearing. Reading lips can help improve how well you are understood, and physical cues can mean a lot.
And so I think it's crazy that senior homes, hospitals and hospices don't come standard with a video call station. This is not anything fancy. It's a computer, a webcam, and a megabit of internet. Ideally wireless to move into rooms for the truly infirm. Yet when I have asked for this I have found myself to be the first person to ask, or found that there are policies against internet use by any but the staff.
I'm going to describe two paths to getting this. The first uses off-the-shelf hardware and freeware, but does require that the staff of these facilities learn how to use the system and be able to set their residents up in front of it when it is time for a call. This is not particularly difficult, and no different then the staff being trained in any of the other things they do for residents and patients. Then I will discuss how you would design a product aimed for the sector, which could be used without staff help.
Today I was pointed to this advertisement asking you to buy prepaid phone cards for the troops.
AT&T has set up special phone stations near all major deployments in the Mid-East. Phone access for our troops is easy, but calls home remain expensive.
A brunch was planned for my mother's house on Sunday, but being 2,500 miles distant, I decided to try to attend by videoconference. Recently Skype has started supporting what it calls a "high quality" videoconference, which is 640x480 at 24 to 30 frames per second. At its base, that's a very good resolution, slightly better than broadcast TV.
This requires fairly modern hardware, which my mother doesn't have. It needs a dual-core processor to be able to compress the video in real time, and a decently fast processor to decompress it. It wants 384K of upstream bandwidth, but ideally even more, which in theory she has but not always. It demands Windows XP. And artificially it demands one of three of Logitech's newest and most expensive webcams, the Orbit AF or the Quickcam Pro for Notebooks or Pro 9000 for desktops. These are the same camera in 3 packages -- I took the Orbit AF which also includes a pan/tilt motor.
Skype's decision to only work with these 3 cameras presumably came from a large kickback from Logitech. Admittedly these are very nice webcams. They are true-HD webcams that can native capture at 1600x1200. They are sharp and better in low light than most webcams, and they come with a decent built in microphone that appears as a USB audio device -- also good. But they aren't the only cameras capable of a good 640x480 image, including many of Logitech's older high-end webcams. They retail for $100 or more, but via eBay sellers I got the Orbit AF for about $75 shipped and the Pro for Notebooks shipped quickly within Canada for $63. Some versions of Skype allow you to hack its config file to tell it to do 640x480 with other quality cameras. That is easy enough for me, but I felt it was not something to push on the relatives quite yet. On the Mac it's your only choice.
Testing on my own LAN, the image is indeed impressive when bandwidth is no object. It is indeed comparable to broadcast TV. That's 4 times the pixels and twice the framerate of former high-end video calls, and 16 times the pixels of what most people are used to. And the framerate is important for making the call look much more natural than older 10fps level calls.
Ok, this would be a cool application for iPhones, Pocket PC and the like -- a dialer which presents an old style rotary phone dial, and you have to put your finger in it and spin it around the center, and then it slowly twists back and plays the sound of a dial returning. A bit like how you control an iPod, but slower.
Completely useless, other than for having fun and explaining to kids why we call it "dialing" a phone.
Today I am at eComm, a reborn conference. Tim O'Reilly, who does the eTech conference (which just took place last week) used to run an emerging telecom conference called eTel. They decided not to run it again, so some of the participants who wanted a little more edgy telecom conference pushed to start a different one. I had hoped it would be an ad-hoc conference in the barcamp/unconference style, but instead it's become a more traditional $1K conference like eTel was.
When you call to get your voice mail, even from your cell phone, it typically asks for a PIN. There's a reason for that -- there is no authentication on Caller ID, and anybody can forge it. So if you don't require a PIN, and the voice mail let you in directly, anybody could listen to your voice mail or hack it in other ways.
More and more people are walking around Borg-ified with bluetooth earpieces. It's convenient, and a good idea when driving, but otherwise looks goofy and also wears on the ear. I've been a big seeker of headset devices that are wireless, but meant to be only put on while talking, and thus very easy to put on and remove. Self-contained bluetooth devices, with the battery in them, tend to be hard to put on. Nothing I have seen is as easy to put on (or as bulky) as a typical headphone headband.
We all hate waiting on hold, and we shouldn't have to. But companies don't do a lot to make it easier, do they?
Most people, I presume, when at their desks, put the hold music on speakerphone, and turn it low. The worst hold musics are ones where a human voice breaks in every 30 seconds or so to remind us that "all agents are busy" or tries to convince us to go to the web site or buy something else. These are the worst because we have to perk up and listen to the human voice to make sure it's not the agent finally getting to us.
This idea came to me via Al Chang. I'm shopping for a new smartphone, and I have been dismayed at how hard it is to get just what I want and not pay a huge fee for it. Right now I'm leaning towards the new HTC Mogul, in part because the Sprint SERO offer is just too good to pass up.
However, in the GSM world, one thing that's frustrating is that carriers only provide a limited number of phones, and in some cases, such as the Nokia E62, they actually rip useful features out of the phones before offering them. (The E61 has Wifi, the E62 removes it!) But the subsidy, which can be $200 to $300 is also too rich to pass up if you're signing up for new service. If they are going to force you into a 2 year contract -- which they do for anything, even just a change of plan -- you are foolish not to take this subsidy.
So here's Al's plan. Go out and buy the phone you want, unlocked (or locked to the carrier you plan to use) from whatever source you like, including cell dealers, Amazon, Dell or eBay.
Next go to your carrier's web site and find the most subsidized phone they sell which works with the plan you intend to use. Find the most subsidized phone by looking at the subsidy price, and comparing it to the typical "completed auction" price on eBay for a no-contract (locked or unlocked) phone. It is often the case, by the way, that there are eBay sellers who will sell you phones that cost $200 after subsidy in the carrier's store for $1 because they kick back to you the kickback they get from the carrier for selling you a fancy phone on a fancy plan. (I have not tried these sellers but they generally have top reputations and lots of happy comments from phone buyers so I presume it works. It does not, however, work with SERO.)
Steve Jobs of Apple Computer warned today that a rumoured cheap Chinese iPhone knockoff making its way toward America is an inferior product which lacks many of the important features of the iPhone. "It may look a bit like an iPhone, but when consumers discover all the great iPhone features that are missing from it, we think they'll still line up at Apple Stores for the genuine article," said Jobs in a released statement. Designed by software nerds, the knockoff, dubbed the "myPhone" by fans, has not yet been confirmed.
Apple released a list of features reported to be missing from the "myPhone."
- The iPhone has special software that assures you will always use the trusted AT&T cellular network. Lacking this software, the myPhone accepts any SIM card from any random network. Users may find themselves connected to a network that doesn't have the reputation for service, trust and protecting the privacy of customers that AT&T has. Or its data speed which is almost double what we're used to with dialup.
- With the myPhone, users may be stuck without 2 years of guaranteed AT&T service and won't get their price locked in for 2 years. AT&T's EDGE network is so good "you won't find yourself able to quit."
- The iPhone is configured to assure you the latest iTunes experience. The myPhone might function before you have installed the latest iTunes and registered your phone with it. Indeed, the myPhone lacks the protections that block it from being used without registering it with or reporting back to anybody, depriving the user of customer service and upsell opportunities.
- The iPhone has special software that assures all applications run on the iPhone have been approved by Apple, which protects the user from viruses and tools that may make the user violate their licence agreements. The myPhone will run any application, from any developer, opening up the user to all sorts of risks.
- The iPhone protects users from dangerous Flash and Java applications which may compromise their device and confuse the user experience.
- myPhones don't forbid VoIP software that may cause the user to accidentally make calls over wireless internet connections instead of the AT&T network. Quality on the internet is unpredictable, as is the price, which can range down to zero, causing great pricing uncertainty. With the iPhone, you always know what calls cost when in the USA.
- The iPhone saves the user from receiving distracting instant messages over popular IM services, adding calm to your day.
- Music and videos in the iPhone are protected by Apple FairPlay brand DRM. On the myPhone, which lacks the important DRM functionality, music can be freely copied to other devices the user owns, putting the user at risk of infringing copyrights.
- The iPhone assures users will only play media files in approved formats, and not risky open source formats.
- The iPhone protects the user from setting a song in their device as a ringtone, saving those around him from annoyance and protecting the user from violating music copyrights and performance rights.
- The iPhone bluetooth functions have careful security management. Users are protected from using bluetooth to exchange files with other users (such files are risky) or accidentally printing or communicating with your computer. Bluetooth is only used for headsets and headphones as was intended. The myPhone lacks these important protections.
- The iPhone only uses its internal flash drive. The user is protected against hard drives, which have moving parts and can put data at risk.
- The myPhone battery has a removable door over it, which can get lost, or allow the battery to fall out or be stolen. The iPhone's battery is solidly protected. Users are also assured they will use only Apple certified batteries and not subject to the risk of aftermarket batteries, which may explode, killing the user.
- The iPhone is for sale only in the USA and primarily for use there. This encourages users to stay home in America which is good for the economy and their own peace of mind.
- The iPhone, unlike the myPhone and all other cell phones, sells at a very solid markup for Apple, assuring Apple executives and stockholders will be happy, and the company will be around to support the iPhone for years to come. The myPhone, it is rumoured, will be purchasable in a wide variety of stores, confusing the buyer with too much choice, price wars and depriving them of the special experience of an Apple or AT&T store.
- As a result, the myPhone lacks the Apple brand "coolness" which is built into the iPhone and every other Apple product. "Nobody's going to have to spend days in line for a myPhone," said Jobs. "You won't have people thrusting them in your face all week to show you how cool they are." Many iPhone users report their experience waiting in line was great fun, and that they met all sorts of new people.
MyPhones are predicted to sell for $350 without contract, $150 with a 2 year contract to the provider of your choice.
In a chat I had recently with another communications geek, we talked about the well known problem of videoconferencing systems. You look at a person on the screen, and the camera is not where you are looking, so eye contact is not possible.
Videophones are still an early adopter thing, but I was imagining an interesting application for them -- reunions. Recently a theatre company I was in had a reunion far away, and I couldn't come, but I wanted somebody to bring in a laptop so we could run a SIP or Skype videophone there. It would not have given me a true sense of participation, but individuals I wanted to catch up on could have come to the video phone and chatted.
Most conferencing applications assume there is going to be one big meeting with everybody talking together. That's useful, but I can see a use for something that facilitates a lot of parallel one-on-one or small group conversations, for something like a reunion. In fact, one might be able to do a decent reunion entirely on the internet, or mostly on it.
Apparently freeconference.com is now sending notes to its customers (one of whom forwarded an example to me) because Sprint, Cingular, Qwest and some others finally got around to blocking calls to their numbers. They pitch it as the big companies trying to block their free service so the giants can sell expensive services, and are trying to whip up support by suggesting this is akin to a network neutrality violation.
In fact, it's an example of the big guys actually doing something right, and fixing a loophole caused by bizarre legacy telco regulation. The number you called for freeconference, and many other services, were served by telcos in rural areas such as Iowa. The phone regulations are set up so that when you make a long distance call on the PSTN, the long distance company pays the remote local phone company to complete the call. Usually that fee is about half a cent per minute in cities, and even free for cell phones. (Frankly, it should always be zero, and this should be paid for as part of my local phone fee, but that's another story.) In Iowa, however, in order to, in theory, help pay the costs of being a phone company that has to send the call out to a lonely Iowa farmhouse, the rural telcos get to charge as much as 6 cents or more per minute to complete the call.
It's nice to have a headset on your desk telephone, for handsfree conversations. A number of phones have a headset jack, either of the submini plug used by cell phones, or using a phone handset jack. Many companies buy headset units that plug into the handset line to provide a headset, some of them are even wireless.
But bluetooth headsets today are cheap, standardized and have a competitive market. And they are of course wireless. Many people already have them for their cell phone. I have seen a very small number of desk phones support having a bluetooth headset, and that shouldn't be al that expensive, but it's rare and only on high-end phones.
Here's the idea: Put bluetooth headset support into the PBX. Bluetooth headsets can't dial, they can effectively only go on-hook and off-hook with a single button. You would associate (in the PBX) your bluetooth headset with your desk phone. A bluetooth master would be not too far from your desk, and tied into the PBX, or into a PC that talks to the PBX. When your BT headset was in range of this master, it would be tied to ith with Bluetooth. (You would have to do an actual bluetooth pairing in advance. In addition, many people have bluetooth headsets normally linked to their cell phone, and call attempts from the headset go to the cell phone. The system would have to switch that over to the PBX.)
As you may know, if you buy a cell phone today, you have to sign up for a 1 or 2 year contract, and you get a serious discount on the phone, often as much as $200. The stores that sell the phones get paid this subsidy when they sell to you, if you buy from a carrier you just get a discount. The subsidy phones are locked so you can't go and take them to another carrier, though typically you can get them unlocked for a modest fee either by the carrier or unlock shops.
Radio technology has advanced greatly in the last several years, and will advance more. When the FCC opened up the small "useless" band where microwave ovens operate to unlicenced use, it generated the greatest period of innovation in the history of radio. As my friend David Reed often points out, radio waves don't interfere with one another out in the ether. Interference only happens at a receiver, usually due to bad design. I'm going to steal several of David's ideas here and agree with him that a powerful agency founded on the idea that we absolutely must prevent interference is a bad idea.
My overly simple summary of a replacement regime is just this, "Don't be selfish." More broadly, this means, "don't use more spectrum than you need," both at the transmitting and receiving end. I think we could replace the FCC with a court that adjudicates problems of alleged interference. This special court would decide which party was being more selfish, and tell them to mend their ways. Unlike past regimes, the part 15 lesson suggests that sometimes it is the receiver who is being more spectrum selfish.
Here are some examples of using more spectrum than you need:
- Using radio when you could have readily used wires, particularly the internet. This includes mixed mode operations where you need radio at the endpoints, but could have used it just to reach wired nodes that did the long haul over wires.
- Using any more power than you need to reliably reach your receiver. Endpoints should talk back if they can, over wires or radio, so you know how much power you need to reach them.
- Using an omni antenna when you could have used a directional one.
- Using the wrong band -- for example using a band that bounces and goes long distance when you had only short-distance, line of sight needs.
- Using old technology -- for example not frequency hopping to share spectrum when you could have.
- Not being dynamic -- if two transmitters who can't otherwise avoid interfering exist, they should figure out how one of them will fairly switch to a different frequency (if hopping isn't enough.)
As noted, some of these rules apply to the receiver, not just the transmitter. If a receiver uses an omni antenna when they could be directional, they will lose a claim of interference unless the transmitter is also being very selfish. If a receiver isn't smart enough to frequency hop, or tell its transmitter what band or power to use, it could lose.
Since some noise is expected not just from smart transmitters, but from the real world and its ancient devices (microwave ovens included) receivers should be expected to tolerate a little interference. If they're hypersensitive to interference and don't have a good reason for it, it's their fault, not necessarily the source's.
Everybody's got old cell phones, which sit in closets. Why don't the wireless carriers let customers cheaply have two or more phones on the same line. That would mean that when a call came in, both phones would ring (and your landlines if you desire) and you could answer in either place. You could make calls from either phone, though not both at the same time.