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Simple, Stand-Alone Internet Communication Devices? 69

Posted by Cliff
from the keeping-in-touch dept.
ashitaka asks: "One month ago my father-in-law died leaving his wife to live alone for the first time in her life. She lives in a somewhat rural part of Japan, north of Tokyo, in an area with few neighbors. My wife is her only daughter and we live in Canada; her only son is an engineer for Fujitsu and spends many days on the road. We know she misses our kids and we try to get over to Japan as much as possible, however more than once every year or two is a stretch." What ashitaka is looking for is a simple device that can be used for video conferencing or instant messaging, that can be controlled with a remote and administered remotely. Assuming something like this doesn't exist, what would it take to bend a PC to this task?
"Videophone technologies up to now have required knowledge of computer operation and Instant Messaging software or having to go through the complexities of setting up the traditional video conference. Here we are talking about a 76-year old Japanese granny who has never (and probably never will) touch anything more complex than the phone or the TV remote.

I'm looking for a device which can be administered remotely, has 6-8 large 'quick-dial' buttons and an emergency button which will try to connect through a list of contacts if required. It shouldn't look like a computer but should support connecting to whatever IM clients would be appropriate. It would be nice if it could turn on the TV when a particular Universal remote button or buttons were pressed to save Obaachan an extra step but I'm not sure if current signaling standards for TVs would support that."
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Simple, Stand-Alone Internet Communication Devices?

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  • by seebs (15766) on Friday May 25, 2007 @05:48PM (#19277111) Homepage
    But apart from that, you might be able to make an N800 work.

    Failing that, get ready to build your own from scratch.
    • Yes, build it from scratch and make a ton selling variations of it so people can communicate freely over the internet without a PC or having to pay a ton for "service."
    • An iMac with an installed VNC server.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jolyon-wagg (1106833)
      I'm writing this on an N800 and - whilst not as easy to use as a laptop - It's much more convenient. Not sure about remote admin but you can hack it to add an ssh server and there's also a VNC server which I've not tried.

      http://maemo.org/ [maemo.org] is the best resource I've foud so far.
    • by ashitaka (27544)
      I looked at the N800. Overkill and what the nice flash ads promote as a "intuitive user interface" would be beyond confusing for Obaachan.

      From scratch looks like the only option unless I can get an electronics maker interested. But I'm one of those that doesn't know how to go about doing that.
    • My Macbook fits that bill - built in webcam, ssh/remote desktop for remote admin, iChat does video/audio if she has an account. I think Spype(s/py/ky/) for Mac has video/audio. Best part is that gran can't really break it if you give her a non-admin account.

      It's a bit pricey for what you want to achieve, but it's a good all round solution - I'm sure she'll be happy with it if she tries it.
  • Packet8 (Score:3, Informative)

    by flonker (526111) on Friday May 25, 2007 @05:58PM (#19277247)
    They've been slowly raising their rates regularly, so we're looking to switch to another voip provider, but Packet8 has a standalone video phone.

    http://www.packet8.net/equipment/residential/video phones.aspx [packet8.net]
  • by MichaelSmith (789609) on Friday May 25, 2007 @05:59PM (#19277271) Homepage Journal
    I am beginning to see why Japanese companies put so much effort into developing home robots.

    It should be possible to throw something together out of fairly standard parts. A PC running Linux, a web cam, a TV tuner and an IR remote control. But I can't see anything off the shelf doing this.
  • XBox 360 (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    An XBox 360 would likely fit the bill. Well two actually, one at both ends. Equip both with an Xbox Live Gold account and an XBox Live Vision Camera and you have instant, plug in and go video teleconferencing. This would be very simple, although the cost is going to be about $600 each for the first year (xbox 360, camera, gold account, rechargable battery for the controller). Then just renew the xbox live gold accounts each year for another $50.
    • by Tumbleweed (3706) *
      That's a lot cheaper than flying the family back and forth to Japan all the time, though.
    • by ashitaka (27544)
      Hmmm. My son who is waiting with baited breath for halo3 would love that.

      However, a shiny box like that sitting in Obaachan's house turned on all the time wouldn't go down too well.
      • So let me get this straight, you want:

        Simple device
        Instant messaging (multiple protocols)
        Video conferencing
        Remote controlled
        Remote admin
        Preferably not PC-based/roll your own
        Large buttons
        Emergency facility (including multiple contact list)
        Automatically turn on the TV

        And when presented to a solution to most of this ridiculous list of requirements, YOU COMPLAIN BECAUSE IT WON'T LOOK NICE?!
    • While you won't get video conferencing or even true IM, the Wii can send and receive messages to and from standard email accounts. Put her family's emails in it with cute Mii versions marking them, and it should be really simple to understand.

      That may not be enough, especially for emergencies (don't they have something like Life Alert in Japan for that?), but it may be a simple work around for non-phone communication.
    • Uggh, no. The Xbox 360 is wholly anathema to the Japanese aesthetic—and I don't just mean in appearance, I mean in design, concept and execution. Here I am, an American-born Japanese, and my gorge rises at the mere mention of that paragon of bad taste. What sort of Japanese-hating sociopath do you have to be to suggest inflicting such an aberration on the innocent grannies of my homeland?
      • while I don't know about the aesthetic tastes of the typical Japanese consumer the Xbox 360 was designed by Hers Experimental design lab in Japan. And it won the Good Design Award [1up.com] in Japan in 2006.

        What is it about the console you find so appalling?
  • The Pepper Pad 3 [pepper.com] isn't quite there with video messing or VoIP, but it might be adaptable. It's Linux-based, which is nice (even though it is Fedora Core 4 based).
  • D-Link makes a video-phone [dlink.com] type device that seems to fit your requirements, but does require a broadband connection.
    • by ashitaka (27544)
      Interesting, looks like the Packet8 device above.

      A broadband connection would not be a problem. This is Japan where 100Mbps fiber connections are $40 a month and ADSL connections which would be enough for this without any construction work required are even less.
  • You tell someone they get to see and talk to their grandkids, they learn how to use a computer. I had to do the same thing for my father once, he's the guy who would keep me tied up on the phone for 4 hours trying to learn how to make letters bold in Word.

    I set up a web cam and AIM for him and showed him how to start and stop the thing a couple times. Then I let my daughter talk him through the process once or twice and it stuck. They talk all the time.

    M
    • by ashitaka (27544)
      Not gonna happen. Obaachan has had a video tape player in her house for close to 15 years and has never, ever used it. She finally broke down and agreed to let my wife buy her a washing machine (no dryer) because washing clothes outside at the cold water tap was getting too harsh in winter.

      There is a cultural aspect at work here as well since although a lot of European and North American elderly people will take up the challenge to learn to use a computer elderly Japanese, especially in rural districts se
      • Hey man, I know I have no clue what the realities of life are in Japan or the cultural differences that exist. It's just surprising the way people change when kids are involved, children are just such a polarizing force people will go to great lengths to be part of their lives.

        There are cultural forces here too which, contrasted with those of your mother, may be interesting to talk about. My dad was a typical Irish American tough guy growing up, had no time for gadgets and used to blast me for spending so m
        • by ashitaka (27544)
          Thanks for the message. You are right that grandkids can be a huge factor in making a change, but for something like this those grandkids need to be right there giving a helping hand. Being 4000 miles away makes that direct contact rather difficult.

          It took my wife living at my in-laws house almost continuously for three months to convince Obaachan that it was time to end 60 years of washing clothes in a basin outside the house.
        • really a touching story, and a good suggestion. thanks for sharing.
  • by pschmied (5648) on Friday May 25, 2007 @07:20PM (#19278161) Homepage
    It seems like the OLPC has the right idea with respect to how to use Linux: Simple, consistent, limited scope system designed for a uniform hardware platform.

    Right now one of the biggest hurdles for Linux uptake is the critical mass problem. If you take all of the technologies loosely associated with Linux right now, there is probably plenty of critical mass for Linux to take off in a meaningful way. However, it's not really about Linux adoption, it's about vertical stacks of technologies in the Linux universe.

    In short, we don't have "Linux" users. We have Linux + Gnome + Firefox + Debian system managment-isms. For programmers, it gets worse: We have Linux + GNU + X11 + Cairo + GTK + Python + Gnome APIs. Now, at each level imagine somewhere between one other and 50 other competing technologies.

    If you don't believe me, feel free to respond to this post and tell me what the best development environment / language to write Linux desktop apps in is. Okay, now what's the best distribution? While we're at it, what's the best text editor? With that as a context, now tell me about UI guidelines and keychain standards.

    It seems to me that, for better or worse, the OLPC project the potential to create a huge, gigantic mass of individuals with a more heterogenious understanding of what Linux "looks like" than has ever existed before.

    Apple has differentiated itself by creating a cohesive environment. Apple users get angry when applications don't conform to specifications. If within the "Linux community" enough people could agree to write apps to a specification, Linux's popularity would rise and we'd see broader uptake.

    Sugar could be that for a certain 90% demographic of Linux users. Imagine: A uniform display canvas, UI standards, consistent technology stack?

    I don't even know that Sugar's technology doesn't suck, but at least it gives some architectural direction.

    Anyway, lest some overzealous moderators accuse me of drifting dangerously off topic, I see a huge need for the sort of limited-purpose system that the original poster is looking for. My parents, my wife's parents and grandparents, (Myself?!) etc. I'm sure there are more than a handful of people here who wish they could set up a system that had some basics like video conferencing (to talk to the grandkids), web surfing, and... what else?

    *The* killer feature would be having a big enough body of users that you knew patch management, upgrades, and hardware compatibility would be automatic. Maybe an OLPC with a bigger screen and keyboard for grandma's eyes and arthritic fingers would fit the bill?

    -Peter
    • by vrmlguy (120854)
      I agree. The problem is, Desktop Linux needs to be more like Embedded Linux. Every once in a while, some magazine columist will claim that there are too many distros and that users are confused about while to use. They are missing the point.

      There are a lot of manufacturers of embedded devices that run Linux, but their customers aren't confused about which distro to use. The maker picks a distro and makes it work on their platform, and that version gets shipped with the hardware. Sure, you can flash oth
    • Freedom, not a lack of it is the answer to the problems you think you see.

      If you don't believe me, feel free to respond to this post and tell me what the best development environment / language to write Linux desktop apps in is. Okay, now what's the best distribution? While we're at it, what's the best text editor? With that as a context, now tell me about UI guidelines and keychain standards.

      I don't believe you because every useful program has been made to work with every distribution without a lot of

      • Either you're trolling or you've simply missed his point completely.
        The poster above has it right.

        The problem isn't freedom or lack of freedom. If you're given a linux-based device with the ability to install software of your choice, you have your freedom.

        What the parent wants is uniformity and proper user interface design. A singular target for support.
        If you're of the minority who doesn't like that singular target, it's no problem. You can go take your hardware and compile your own distro. Nothing's going
        • by bit01 (644603)

          It's called a free market. Like most every other market on the planet. There's nothing stopping you or a new user making [shudder] choices for all of the things you mention. In all the things you mention there's only a limited number of mainstream choices.

          Sure it's inefficient having multiple projects competing in slightly different ways. It's called capitalism. Maybe you'd prefer communism?

          If you want a true standards mess forget about linux, just look at web technologies, particularly flash interface

        • You suggestion is really an insult that makes no sense:

          What the parent wants is uniformity and proper user interface design. ...you could have some 50 different linux VOIP phones and it wouldn't help if every single one of them have horrible UIs, right? Same thing applies to computers.

          So really, what you are saying is that KDE, Gnome and friends all suck. That's fine, go find something you like. What you claim you want is:

          A singular target for support.

          This is a foolish and impossible goal. Even i

    • by dodobh (65811)
      If you don't believe me, feel free to respond to this post and tell me what the best development environment / language to write Linux desktop apps in is. Okay, now what's the best distribution? While we're at it, what's the best text editor?

      The one that suits your needs best is the one for you. For me, it's vim, Perl, Gentoo, vim. For others it could be different. The point is that there is no best solution out there. I have a solution for my needs. For people with different needs, the solutions are differ
  • While I supposed an N800 working here, I think the best bet is a MythTV setup working best here. I have heard of IR remotes working with it, and IM is a cinch. Not only that but the TV funationality is built in, and you can expand it as you see fit.

    As for remote administration, that is as simple as adding an SSH server, and possibly something like FreeNX/NoMachine or VNC (I recommend the former, as I seem to be able to do anything, including remote video) from it...

    Not to mention, other than the hardware, i
    • by rerunn (181278)
      mythtv for this?? LOL He wants something simple! What part of that didnt you get?? I don't need to elaborate any further.
  • by SmoothTom (455688) <Tomas@TiJiL.org> on Friday May 25, 2007 @07:54PM (#19278469) Homepage
    Built in camera, software included, toss in Apple Remote Desktop 3 and it is remotely administrable. Very stable, not as subject to thousands of viruses, very decent power consumption, etc.

    --Tomas

    • by ashitaka (27544)
      An iMac or any computer would work for that matter, but the idea is it shouldn't appear to be a computer and doesn't require any functionality other than to act as a visual communications device.

      The remote administration ability is both so that we can resolve any problems but also to allow us the ability to turn on the camera if we cannot contact her by the usual means just in case.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        An iMac can be setup to require nothing more than then the mouse as an input device. I beleive it is even possible to to configure it to auto-start iChat on power-up.
      • ...allow us the ability to turn on the camera if we cannot contact her by the usual means just in case.
        You could VNC into the built-in Remote Desktop client and initiate a video iChat.
    • From what I hear, Apple Japan is mostly populated with buffoons. Macs are very easy to maintain relatively speaking in regards to computers, but I don't know how a computer-illiterate person would fix it in case you can't connect into it.
  • Found it! (Sort of) (Score:4, Informative)

    by ashitaka (27544) on Friday May 25, 2007 @11:43PM (#19279987) Homepage
    Looking at the D-Link videophone that was suggested I also found they have a stand-alone unit [dlink.com] that connects to your TV to display the video and audio. It also has jacks for external audio input an external phone/answering machine to take voicemail messages even from video callers and comes in wired and 802.11b wireless models.

    Control is through a TV-remote control device so it's close perfect. I would have to see how well it could be remotely controlled from outside but I'm sure some hacking possibilities are there.

    Now to get Obaachan a broadband connection and we're in business.

    Thanks all!
    • by howman (170527)
      A broadband connection..... In Japan.... Never... ^_-... lol
    • by Hercynium (237328)
      I work with some real tech junkies and so I know a couple of people who have this device. They started playing with it and found it was so simple it was perfect for using with family and (gasp) even managers!

      Since it uses fairly common standards for everything - video, audio, connection setup and control, they were even able to make operate with a number of different software packages, including some on Linux.
      • by ashitaka (27544)
        Since it can talk to anything that does H.323 it should work with any standards-compliant VOIP device or software. Were they able to get into the box itself from the LAN side an change the internals??
        • by Hercynium (237328)
          Hmmm... not sure about that part. However, I remember seeing my manager playing with it, connected to someone else who was working @ home and that the picture quality was quite decent. Not Hi-Def, but much better than your average webcam. (It's so subjective...) He was also planning to send one to his parents - they recently moved to Florida
  • Just sign her up with Skype.
    • by ashitaka (27544)
      And how does she connect to Skype?

      The software and carrier is not the problem, it is completely the hardware and user interface. It must be as non-threatening as a regular telephone.

      I really did find almost exactly what I was looking for in the D-Link DVC-1100. As long as the receiving party has the same type of unit you can dial it with a regular telephone using the recipient's existing phone number. A proprietary directory service maps the telephone number to an endpoint IP address. For other H.323 co
      • by really? (199452)
        Skype USB phones, that hook up to your computer, are less than $20 at Anitec on Kingsway.

        So, get the phone and on your way to baachan's place cruise Akihabara for a cheap used laptop.

        Finishing the project will be left as an exercise to the reader. :-)
  • In Japan, the fact is the solutions are already available, and ubiquitous: Cellphones. Most of the mid range and higher cell phones in Japan already have front-mounted cameras for video-conferencing and can integrate pretty well with software-based video conference systems (though you may want to do a lot of research).

    Now, obviously the resolution isn't great and you're at the mercy of signal... but I've already used a cellphone in Europe with a front-mounted camera to keep in touch with my family back in t
    • by ashitaka (27544)
      Interesting concept, but the choice of cellphones in Japan boggled even me. The user interfaces are also way beyond what Obaachan could deal with. We really are in an interesting age where although we and our kids can easily pick up even the most bizarre computer or phone interfaces, some elderly can't even comprehend what is being shown on the screen. A simple phrase like "Click on the dial icon" is completely incomprehensible. What is an icon? What does it mean to "click" on something? and most import
      • You know, looking at that device I think that's the way you need to go. Simple, commercially supported (if she has a problem she can call their support line) and relatively inexpensive :) I might buy one or two of these for my family in the UK so we can video-conference as well :D

        Thanks for the heads up!
  • Everyone else is doing it.

     
  • get a PC

    install a linux distro you can admin remotely and that won't need to be upgraded to a new release too often. something like debian stable or one of the rhel rebuilds.

    install a nice lightweight desktop and customise it to have easy links to the instant messaging and videoconfrencing apps, possibblly a web browser too. Set up all the software so it just works for her.

    for emergency communication i think your better off sticking to the phone even if it is a little expensive, maybe get her a standalone V
  • We have units from Polycomm at work. You can remotely control the camera, zoom, etc. They're compatible with standardized video-conferencing software, and can dial from a list much akin to a video-phone.

    They also plug directly into a TV, or video projector, and can be set to "follow" noise.

    They can also be rather extensively expensive, of course, but I've seen some on eBay for not too bad a price (up to the discretion of the buyer).

    Here [polycom.com] is some stuff from their website. It doesn't seem to mention pric

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