Today I had a five-hour Skype conversation with my girlfriend. I don't want to say "phone call" because to me, it was less about a phone call and more about virtual continuous presence. During a phone call, you are mostly only engaged in that call. But this conversation was to us just one of the things we were doing -- we were also both watching this year's Eurovision song contest on our computers, and I was also cooking my lunch at the same time and she was sort of walking me through a few things there :)
The Eurovision watching itself was kind of interesting. We don't take it seriously and it has nothing to do with music, but it's fun, if somewhat bizarre, entertainment and we've watched it from year to year. But at this time we both live in countries where there's no easy access to local TV relaying the event. Or, maybe there is where she lives, but we both rely on our computers and don't want to go hunt in foreign TV stations. And so we both are just used to watching the event as live stream in our computers.
She watched it in Europe from the stream relayed by Estonian television, that had also local commentary on it. I tried watching it in the US, but it was intermittent and kept rebuffering and wasn't really watchable. So I switched to the international European Broadcasting Union stream which worked amazingly well and was delivered as a nice continuous stream without buffers. So I had almost the same comment as her, except that this is the raw content delivered to national channels who then add their local commentary, subtitles etc. I didn't have any of that, I just had the main program content but no one talking over it.
Another fun property of these streams was that even though my stream was supposed to be closer to the program source, the Estonian stream that she was watching was about 10 seconds ahead of me :) this didn't seem to be a property of buffering, since it was a very stable delay throughout the whole 3-hour program.
Ambient presence and learnings
The ambient presence experience was great. I was walking around my kitchen with my headset on, cord unwrapped and the computer sitting on the countertop, and we listened to the program and watched it, and I was cooking and it was great.
Some takeaways for me too.
- I really need a wireless headset. And I don't want any of those tiny things that go in just one ear, I want a full stereo experience. Looks like the Freetalk headset that Skype is selling might be a good one, I'll give it a go. Although my headset cord was really long, it sometimes got tangled with other stuff in the kitchen and countertop.
- Skype or someone should invent a device specifically for kitchens and other family spaces where you can have this shared ambient presence with less hassle. In the past, people have been doing things like sticking laptops on the wall to do similar thing also with video (we didn't do video today). And it should be a vertical device on the wall. I would buy it right away if it was cool, and it would be a more likely purchase for me than, say Microsoft Surface. It would be cool to have this sort of ambient displays around your home that display you news headlines and other stuff you want, and also serve as Skype (video) call nodes. Maybe even as you walk around, switch the recording source automatically etc.
- Current bandwidth (I think I have 6 Mbps) is pretty adequate for this sort of situations where you stream both a high-quality TV stream (I think it was 600 Kbps) plus a Skype call. I can't imagine though what would have happened when we had also added Skype video stream on top of that.