iTOi, a video accessory for iPads, brings eye contact back to video calls. How they skipped startup funding and went straight to a distribution deal with Brookstone.
In 2010, I became convinced that the Jetsons were a family of prophets and the look they gave us into the future of video communication had finally come to fruition. When the iPhone 4 came along and brought FaceTime to the world, accessible video calls got further legitimized by the Apple name. Later, when the iPad 2 was introduced with a camera and FaceTime capability, I was convinced that the prophecy foretold by the Jetsons was coming true—video calls would soon replace standard phone systems.
While FaceTime was, and still is, a feat in communication engineering, it can be pretty awkward. Usually, the conversation takes place between two people with their heads down, looking at their device screens and not at each other. iTOi, a video booth accessory for the iPad available later this year, fixes this problem by bringing eye contact to video calling on the iPad.
According to iTOi Executive Director Hernan Giraldo, the goal of iTOi is: "Replicating the face-to-face user experience."
The iTOi booth, which is called a booth as a reference to a video booth, uses specifically designed lenses and mirrors to move the video image of a face in front of the camera so when a user is looking at the person they called, they are also looking directly into the camera. The booth works with all iPad models with a camera running FaceTime, Skype, or Google+ Hangouts.
The idea is innovative in its own right, but what is even more interesting is the story behind iTOi. Giraldo began working on iTOi years before the iPad was even announced and he made it straight to a distribution deal without any institutional funding.
Giraldo got the idea for iTOi almost a decade ago when he was looking for a job. He began to produce video resumes to set himself apart from other applicants. Even with his experience in IT and video, he found it was rather difficult to quickly put a good-looking video together; but, he got good feedback on the videos.
Contacts he made in human resources for these potential jobs assumed he had created video résumé software and wanted to buy it from him to use for recruiting purposes. By combining his personal goal of finding a job with his experience in telecom, Giraldo discovered a need he could address with a product.
While living in Europe eight years ago, Giraldo worked with a team on early video calls over 3G. That's where the seed of his idea was planted, but it didn't start to bloom until the iPad came along. Giraldo saw the iPad as a vehicle for easy video production and eye-contact in video calls.
Patents were filed three to four years ago and Giraldo began hiring engineers and developers with his own money to help him build out the product. iTOi has gone over eight physical prototypes and the team had an iOS app developed as a companion to the hardware to help assist people in video production and video authoring on the iPad. The app includes a scrolling teleprompter feature and the ability to drag and drop images into videos.
The iTOi team contends that video chatting adoption has been lukewarm at best because it doesn't provide the human experience of looking directly at the other person. The feedback loop of reading facial expressions doesn't happen because video callers are constantly staring at each others' foreheads.
Giraldo and his team now felt that they had developed a product that helped improve video communication and video production on an iPad. Now, with a proof-of-concept and a working device, many startups would pitch a VC firm or look for institutional funding to begin manufacturing their product, but they took a different route. They had made it this far without funding, so they took it straight to distribution.
Brick and mortar
As they were developing their marketing strategy, they realized one very important aspect of their product: the selling of the iTOi booth, at least initially, would require a physical demonstration, preferably an interactive one at a brick and mortar store. It was because of this that iTOi targeted Brookstone, but they also initially targeted TV shopping channels QVC and HSN.
At the end of 2012, Giraldo began cold calling all three, but was holding out for Brookstone. He was trying to get in touch with Steve Schwartz, Brookstone's Vice President of Product Development and Merchandising, but he could never seem to get him on the phone.
After finding out the Schwartz would be at the 2013 CES, Giraldo decided he was going to find Schwartz at at the conference and pitch him face-to-face. He convinced Schwartz to watch his demonstration video and, from that point on, Schwartz was on board.
"At Brookstone we design and develop many of our own products, using our design and development team," Schwartz said. "Hernan's iTOi product exemplifies our own product development and sales culture objectives. The product solves a problem and is extremely innovative. I knew it would be successful for those reasons, but also the interaction demonstrations in our stores will drive success."
The terms of the deal are confidential, but Brookstone is getting some short term exclusivity for the U.S. retail market. In addition to Brookstone, Firaldo met ten interested international retailers at CES and he is targeting businesses with telecommuters as well.
The company is about to begin manufacturing the device, focusing on Brookstone's order first. iTOi will retail for $149, with a potential two-pack deal for $250 and will include a download code for the iOS app. Schwartz said Brookstone is planning a launch for this summer.