Usee, Isee: Another Videophone Pioneer

Dallas-based company launches voice-and-video over IP unit that's jazzy, but'simple enough for 'just folks.'

By Adam Stone | Posted Aug 7, 2008
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Anthony Fedele is certain it’s going to work this time.

Yes, the first video phone was introduced at the 1964 World’s Fair, more than four decades ago, and yet the technology still has not captured the imagination, much less the purse, of the people.

But Fedele has a plan that he says will put recently-formed Usee on the map. The Dallas company’s VoIP-based Useeisee PictureFone sells for $249 and requires a monthly subscription of $39.95 which allows for unlimited calling in the U.S. and Canada.

The difference this time is marketing. A 30-year veteran of the advertising industry, Usee’s president says videophones have never had enough jazz to them, and this failure in positioning has held them back. "People have treated it is a high-tech product, and not as a friendly, simple, isn’t-this-fun kind of product," he said.

Using hardware from Boston-based GrandStream and with XCast Labs in Los Angeles as its carrier, Usee was designed ease of use in mind. Installation requires no downloading, just a simple DSL or cable modem connection, all accomplished in less than a minute, Fedele said. "I always believe simple is better, and there has to be a simple way of doing this."

This general rule holds doubly true for Usee’s target market, Boomers tending toward grandparent age, who Fedele says are going to be tech-shy enough to want a super-simple process if they are going to embrace a new technology.

But will they embrace it? No one has before, and for a range of commonly cited reasons.

Connectivity has been problematic in the past. Compression muddles the visuals while slow transfer speeds lead to choppy playback.

Moreover, social issues are believed to be keeping people away from videophones. It used to be a matter of “sopping wet hair, I don’t want anyone to see me like this.” Today it is more about multitasking: Video phone means no more checking e-mail while only half attentive to one’s phone conversation. No more sneaking in French fries between grunted "uh-huh’s." And who wants that?

Grandparents do, Fedele said. So do parents whose kids live in different states or different countries. So do businesses with multiple offices, tired of teleconferencing with unseen colleagues.

These potential audiences have attracted the attention of other would-be vendors. Service provider Packet8.net offers what it says is high-quality, full-motion video and clear, delay-free audio over any broadband connection. Motorola’s Ojo Personal Video Phone connects to a home-network router, delivers free IP calls and is also capable of acting as a standard 2.4GHz cordless phone.

Still, some leading players have failed to break in. Vonage’s long-promised video phone has not, so far, materialized.

While Fedele says ease of use will smooth the way for consumer acceptance, he acknowledges a profound hurdle on the road to widespread usage. Want to use the video capability of your Useeisee PictureFone? The person on the other end of the call needs to have a Usee device, too. (Same holds true for Ojo.)

In theory, diligent standards compliance could make it possible for videophones from different manufacturers to interoperate. However, Usee representatives say lab testing has not yet turned up another phone with which theirs can connect.

Fedele’s response is to formulate a plan to sell the phones in pairs. He is working out the pricing right now and says he will have a package in place in time for the Christmas season. By then he intends to have ads in People, and in publications from AARP.

It may be Usee’s one and only shot, and Fedele is moving with care. "This is a self-funded company. We don’t have the money to do everybody, so we have to be real cautious about how we get there," he said. "We could easily divert ourselves by getting into the college market too quickly. I’ve got to make an impact with the Baby Boomers before we start trickling down to do everybody else."

To make it all click, he’ll still need to overcome users’ apparent desire to go unseen when pursuing their daily business.

"If you don’t want them to see you, just hit the Don’t-See button and no one’s going to see you," Fedele said. "People are going to talk about that, it’s human nature, but overall they are going to enjoy the experience of seeing body language in a meeting—of seeing a grandchild. I am kind of old-fashioned guy myself. I like to see the person’s eyes when we are talking."

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