Smart TV video conferencing has not lived up to its promise. The televisions themselves–essentially TV sets with internet connectivity–are evolving at a rapid rate, but there are precious few examples of an all-in-one entertainment and communication device that satisfactorily performs both tasks. Skype for TV came and went in the middle of the decade after a run of a little more than five years, and the most common form of household big-screen video calling is the smoke and mirrors of casting–which frustratingly separates the camera from the screen.
The impressive wall-mounted units that we use in the office for conference calls are more accurately described as large computer screens, while the 4K cinematic home theater experience is difficult to replicate over a two-way video conference connection.
There is hope for a solution, however, and it’s likely to be one of three options. The first involves an integrated video calling/home entertainment set, as is reportedly being pursued by Facebook. The second focuses on hardware that connects to and empowers the TV, like the recently upgraded Hello 2 by startup Solaborate. And the third is the circular collision of smart home hubs and smart TVs into a single unified unit. Any of these, in our opinion, would be an improvement on the current situation.
Facebook Wants to Improve Smart TV Video Conferencing
Facebook is desperately trying to physically invade our homes. Last year it launched the impressive Facebook Portal video conferencing hub. While the device looks like an iPad on a stand, it in fact evolves the market-leading Amazon Echo Show from a smart assistant with a digital screen into a fully-fledged video conferencing tool complete with AI-powered auto-tracking.
Despite the exciting tech, Portal has been a market disappointment, with some blaming the company’s poor privacy record for slow sales. Ever determined to prove that first-in-class integration and functionality will triumph over bad PR, Facebook is reportedly currently developing a smart TV with built-in video conferencing. The social media giant is already in negotiations with on-demand content providers, including Disney and Netflix, to flesh out its new digital offering. The unit is expected to expand the ambition and tech of Portal into home entertainment and presumably take up more precious space within our living rooms.
If those online rumors prove true, Facebook could be about to unleash the first home entertainment unit with built-in video cameras and microphones. At the moment, though, smart TV video conferencing is dependent on the pairing of external hardware to the TV set in order to balance both worlds.
The Hello 2 from Solaborate
We first discussed Solaborate way back in 2016–the same year Skype for TV perished–as the startup was preparing to roll out its range of TV-mounted home video conferencing solutions. Business has obviously been good for the Californian company, as they have returned this year with a not one but four new updates to the tech. Based around the same integrated audio and video solution as the original Hello, the basic TV-mountable Hello 2 now combines video calling with a host of on-demand services including Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Twitch, and video platforms Zoom, Skype, and BlueJeans…it even supports Amazon Alexa and Google Voice Assistant.
The new device will cost $799 for the basic audio/visual bar (there’s a Touch version that ships with a 65-inch digital whiteboard screen for $3,499) and acts like a set-top box or dongle, in the same fashion as an Amazon Fire Stick or Roku connection. Without getting behind the proverbial wheel for a real road test, it’s hard to comment on the success of the Hello 2, but from afar it certainly looks like a promising addition to the smart TV video conferencing canon.
As with all startups, though, Solaborate will have to fight off competition from some far more established–and easier to pronounce–big tech names if it is to continue flourishing.
Smart TVs Are Starting to Listen
The processing power of smart TVs has improved dramatically over the past decade. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a digital set that can’t scour the internet for movies, music, and news.
Video conferencing has some particular tech and hardware demands, though, which until recently were totally foreign to the home entertainment world. Microphones, for example, aren’t required in order to enjoy Game of Thrones…despite how fervently you may wish to scream obscenities at Cersei. However, microphones are integral to video calling. Perhaps when more smart TV providers begin incorporating voice-activated assistants like Alexa and Google assistant into their command functions, high-quality microphones will become standard.
The same applies to peer-to-peer messaging, typically reserved for the second screen experience. If smart TV makers want to corner your social world, they’ll soon make allowances for that function too.
All of which leaves only the camera absent from a television-based video calling system. And how long will it take for TVs to evolve an unblinking eye in the middle of their top bevel if the growth of video conferencing continues along current trends?
It could be that within just a few years the current wasteland of smart TV video conferencing, with its casting workarounds, is transformed into an oasis of new forms of digital communication for the living room.