Walt Mossberg

Real Bonding With Family Around the TV Via Skype

As you read these words, millions of people are conducting video chats using the popular Skype service, now owned by Microsoft. Most of these calls are low-resolution encounters between two individuals, conducted over personal computers.

This week, I tested a new device that aims to transform Skype video chats into room-size experiences, involving whole families or groups of friends on each end—seeing each other, chatting and sharing photos in high definition using TVs. It’s called telyHD, and comes from a small Silicon Valley start-up called Tely Labs. In my tests, it worked well.

This TV add-on product is a black, horizontal bar less than a foot long and under 3 inches high with a wide-angle lens and multiple built-in microphones. It installs quickly and easily—typically on top of the TV—and is controlled by a remote from across the room that can be used to place and answer calls, and to zoom and pan your image. It can connect to any other Skype-enabled device—including PCs, Macs, smartphones and tablets—but some of its advanced features require a telyHD on both sides of the conversation.

The $250 telyHD isn’t just a different way to use Skype. It’s part of the race to reinvent the television—to make it a smarter, more versatile digital device. So-called smart TVs, Internet-enabled sets that connect to the Web and run apps, are offered by most major manufacturers. The telyHD device brings added functionality and connectivity to existing “dumb” HDTVs that lack built-in online features.

There is no monthly fee or subscription required by Tely Labs, and video calls between a telyHD and any other Skype device, including another telyHD, are free. You can also make free Skype-to-Skype audio calls, and audio calls to regular phones can be made at Skype’s normal rates.

I’ve been testing telyHD in my family room on my aging Pioneer 50-inch plasma HDTV. I made multiple calls to people at the company using other telyHD units. And, with my wife at my side, in our usual seats, we made video calls to each of our out-of-state children, who were using Skype-equipped computers.

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TelyHD mounts on top of even thin TVs using a built-in clamp.

On our end of the calls, we didn’t have to crowd around a laptop webcam, jump up to fiddle with the unit, or do anything different than if we had been watching TV. Our kids reported they could see and hear us both fine, even though we were about 10 feet from the camera. One person I tested with did report some audio feedback on her computer.

I can say that telyHD worked as advertised, and provided good, generally smooth experiences on every call, whether I used a wired network connection or Wi-Fi on my end. The calls to other telyHDs appeared in high definition on our screen, though the calls to computers were lower resolution, as with many Skype calls. And, if you’re concerned about rogue invasions of privacy, the telyHD has a sliding plastic shield to cover the camera when not in use.

You can buy telyHD from the company’s site, tely.com, or at Skype.com or Amazon.com. Ironically, it is hitting the market shortly after Cisco stopped selling a somewhat similar home video-calling product. Cisco’s product cost much more, wasn’t tied into Skype and carried a monthly fee.

TelyHD isn’t just a webcam. It’s a small computing device, powered by Google’s Android operating system. It contains software and Internet capabilities most TVs lack, some of which go beyond simple video calls. For instance, when contacting other telyHD units, I was able to send and receive video voice mails. And I was able to plug into the telyHD a flash memory card filled with pictures. I could share the pictures with another telyHD user and vice versa. I could even choose to copy a photo from the other party onto my own memory card. You can do the same thing with a USB drive.

(TelyHD isn’t the only way to use Skype for a whole-room view from a TV. Some of the new smart TVs, and even some Blu-ray players, come equipped with Skype software. When paired with a webcam, they, too, can conduct Skype video calls via the TV. I didn’t test these for this column.)

TelyHD can be placed on top of the TV, on a shelf, or on a tripod. It requires a broadband Internet connection, either wired or wireless, and an HDMI port on the TV, which is common on HDTVs. It mounts on top of even thin TVs using a built-in clamp that doesn’t require tools. I set up my test unit in about 15 minutes.

The system can’t be used simultaneously with regular TV-watching. Just as with a DVD player, you must switch to a separate “input” on your TV to bring it up. When you do, it signs you into your Skype account and fills the screen with a carousel of big cards representing your Skype contacts. You click on a card with the remote to place or answer a call. There are various screen layouts you can choose, including a small window that shows what you look like to others and windows that show tips on what the remote buttons do.

My only serious complaint with telyHD is that the remote control seems cheap, with hard-to-press buttons. But the company says it has designed an improved remote and will offer this new one free to existing owners. Also, as with many TV services, it’s a pain to peck out user names, or searches, on an on-screen keyboard. And I found a bug in which the unit didn’t recognize certain Wi-Fi network names, but the company fixed it earlier this week.

Tely Labs plans more versions of telyHD and more features. A pricier model for small businesses is in the works, which will allow live file sharing, and have a better camera and a keyboard. A second software version also is coming. It will allow the unit to send to the TV screen video from Apple’s iPad and will also support photo sharing from online services.

The company is working on allowing video calling among up to 10 devices, though that will carry a fee.

I can recommend telyHD for people with HDTVs who want to move their Skype video calling to where whole groups can get into the picture.

Write to Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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