Tellybean and WebRTC: An Interview With Cami Hongell

10/09/2015

WebRTC on the large screen.

I am not a fan of video calling in the living room. Not because I have real issues with it, but because I think it is a steep mountain to climb – I am more of the low-hanging-fruit kind of a guy.

That’s not the case with Tellybean, a company focused on TV video calling and recently doing that using WebRTC.

Cami HongellCami Hongell, CEO of Tellybean, found the time to chat with me and answer a few questions about what they are doing and the challenges they are facing.
What is Tellybean all about?

Tellybean is all about easy video calling on the TV. My two co-founders are Aussies living in Finland and they had a problem. A software update or a forgotten password too often got in the way of their weekly Skype call with grandma Down Under. Once audio and video were finally working both ways, there were four people fighting for a spot in front of the 13” screen.

We realised that modern life tends to separate families and our problem was far from unique. That’s when we decided to build an easy video calling service for the TV. It had to be so easy that even grandma could use it from the comfort of her couch. At the same time as we worked hard to eliminate complexity, we also needed to keep it affordable and build a channel which would provide users an easy way of getting the service.

Today we have an app which allows easy video calls on Android TV devices of our TV and set-top box partners. Currently you can make calls between selected Tellybean enabled Android TV devices and our web app on www.tellybean.com. To make it as easy as possible to call somebody from your TV, we will release apps for Android and iOS mobiles and tablets in the future.

 

 You started by building your TV solution using Skype. What made you switch to WebRTC?

When we founded Tellybean four years ago the tech landscape looked very different from today. WebRTC wasn’t there. Android TV and Tizen weren’t there – the TV operating systems were all over the place. So initially we set out to build an easy service which would run on our own dedicated Linux box. Our intention was to allow our service to connect with other existing services by putting our own UI on top of headless clients developed using the SDK’s provided by some of the existing services. We started with SkypeKit and had a first version of it ready a few years ago. We were going to continue by adding Gtalk.

However, Skype decided to wind down the support of 3rd party developers and Google stopped Gtalk development. This happened almost at the same time as WebRTC was starting to gain traction. Switching to WebRTC turned out to be an easy decision once we looked into it and moved over to working on Android and 3rd party hardware only.

 

What excites you about working in WebRTC?

Having tried different VoIP platforms in the past, we have learned to appreciate the fact that working with WebRTC has allowed us to focus our  resources on the more important UX and UI development. Since WebRTC offers a plugin-free and no-download alternative for video calling with modern browsers, combined with our TV and upcoming mobile device approach we are able to provide easy use for a huge audience, with almost all entry barriers removed.

We are excited about having a great service which is getting a lot of interest from everybody in the Android TV value chain from the chip manufacturers to the TV and STB manufacturers as well as the operators. We’ve announced co-operation with TP Vision / Philips TVs and Nvidia and much more in the pipeline. The great support and resources available in the WebRTC community, coupled with the support from the hardware manufacturers means that  WebRTC is truly becoming a compelling open source alternative for service developers, such as ourselves.

 

Can you tell me a bit about the challenges of getting WebRTC to operate properly in an embedded environment fit for the TV?

An overall problem has been that we are moving slightly ahead of the curve.

Firstly, we need access to a regular USB camera. Unfortunately the Android TV platform and most devices lack UVC camera support. So we have been pushing everybody, Google, the device manufacturers and the chip suppliers, to add camera support. The powerful Nvidia Shield Console has camera support and we already have a few of the other major players implementing it for us.

Secondly, there are still devices that are underpowered and/or lack support for VP8 HW encoding, meaning that it is hard for us to provide a satisfactory call quality. Luckily again, most of the devices launched this year can handle video calling and our app.

The third problem relates to fine tuning the audio for our use case where the distance between the USB camera’s mic and the TV’s speakers is not a constant. Third time lucky: WebRTC provides us pretty good echo cancellation and other tools to optimize this and produce good audio quality.

 

What signaling have you decided to integrate on top of WebRTC?

Wanting to support browsers for user convenience and to get going quickly, we started out building our own solution with Socket I/O, but we are transitioning to MQTT for two reasons. Firstly, we came to the conclusion that MQTT provided us much more efficient scalability. Secondly, MQTT is much easier on the battery for mobile devices.

Current implementations of MQTT also allow us to use websockets for persistent connections in browsers, so it suits our purposes well. Additionally, some transaction-like functionality is done using REST. We are writing our own custom protocol as we go, which allows us to grow the service organically instead of trying to match a specification set forth by another party that doesn’t match our requirements or introduces undue complexity in architecture or implementation.

 

Backend. What technologies and architecture are you using there?

We have server instances on Amazon Web Services, running our MQTT brokers and REST API, as well as the TURN/STUN service required for WebRTC. We use Node.JS on the servers and MongoDB from a cloud service which allows us easy distributed access to shared data.

 

Where do you see WebRTC going in 2-5 years?

The recent inclusion of H.264 will lead to broader adoption of WebRTC in online services, and also in dedicated hardware devices since H.264 decoders are readily available. Microsoft is also starting to adopt WebRTC in their new Edge browser, so it seems like there’s a bright future for rich communication using WebRTC once all the players have started moving. Like everybody else, we would naturally like full WebRTC support from Microsoft and Apple sooner rather than later, and it will be hard for them to ignore it with all the support it is already receiving. In this timeframe, at least high-end mobile devices should have powerful enough hardware to support WebRTC in the native browsers without issues. With this kind of background infrastructure a lot of online services will be starting to use WebRTC in some form, instead of more isolated projects. With everyone moving towards a new infrastructure, hopefully any interoperability issues between different endpoints have been sorted out, which allows service developers to focus on their core ideas.

 

If you had one piece of advice for those thinking of adopting WebRTC, what would it be?

WebRTC is still an emerging technology, that will surely have an impact for developers and businesses going forward, but it’s not completely mature yet. We’ve seen a lot of good development over time, so for a specific use case, it might be a plug-and-play experience or then in a more advanced case you may need a lot of development work.

 

Given the opportunity, what would you change in WebRTC?

WebRTC has been improving a lot during the time that we’ve worked with it, so we believe that current issues will be improved on and disappear over time. The big issue right now on the browser side is obviously adoption, with Microsoft and especially Apple not up to speed yet. We would also like to see good support for all WebRTC codecs from involved parties, to avoid transcoding and to be able to use existing hardware components for a great user experience.

 

What’s next for Tellybean?

We’ve recently launched our Android TV app and are seeing the first users on the Nvidia Shield console, the first compatible device. We are now learning a lot and have a chance to fine tune our app. From a business point of view we currently have full focus on building a partner network which will provide us the platform for 100+ million TV installations in the coming years. Next we are starting development of mobile apps for Android and iOS. Later we will need to decide if moving to other TV operating systems or e.g. enabling other video calling services to connect to Tellybean TVs will be the next most important step towards achieving our aim of becoming THE video calling solution for the TV.

The interviews are intended to give different viewpoints than my own – you can read more WebRTC interviews.

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