There are the products you spot on the showfloor at International CES that you want to hear more about because they look incredibly cool; there are also the products you spot at CES that you want to find out more about because they're awfully fun to ridicule. I'll leave it to you to guess as to which group is the larger one.
But it is a rare instance to catch a glimpse of something seemingly ridiculous at CES only to find out that, upon closer inspection, it's a rather clever idea. Such was the case at CES this past week with iToi, an iPad accessory aimed at improving the video conferencing experience that turns out to be a lot more useful than you might think at first glance.
Because that first glance of iToi is not a flattering one.
iToi is essentially a cabinet for your iPad that you use for FaceTime chats as well as Skype video calls or any other video conferencing app you care to run on your iPad. Across a crowded CES floor, it looks like people staring into a miniature arcade game cabinet--not really a good first impression.
But ask a few questions about the iToi--"Why are you doing this to a perfectly acceptable iPad?" is a good starting point--and you'll discover that the casing actually solves some pretty common problems with tablet-based video chats.
For starters, unless you have arms of steel, you are typically holding your iPad and staring downward at the screen, giving the person on the other end of that camera a terrifically unflattering view of the underside of your chin. Since your eyes tend to look at the person on the screen and not at the camera above them, you're also not making eye contact with your chat buddy.
Because iToi stands your iPad upright in its case, you're now looking straight ahead and not down. Mirrors inside the case push the image of the other person upward, forcing your gaze toward the camera. The end result: You'll look like a normal human being in your video chats and not some shifty-eyed, double-chinned monster.
iToi promises other benefits as well. A redirection chamber at the case's bottom reroutes audio from your iPad's speaker for a better sound--the company has recorded a 15 to 20 decibel gain, iToi co-creator Hernan Giraldo told me. A vent at the top funnels your voice toward the iPad's built-in microphone in another effort to boost audio.
iToi has another appealing aspect in the form of an accompanying app that will be available at the same time the product starts shipping this summer. The app has a teleprompter function, where a narrow strip of text will appear on the screen inside the iToi as you record a video on your iPad. As someone who uses iPad teleprompter apps, I found the width of the text area in iToi's version to be just about perfect--it keeps your eyes shifting from one end of the screen to other as you read through your script. I'm not sure how many people will make use of the teleprompter feature--it's a pretty niche capability that seems aimed squarely at video podcasters--but it's a well-designed addition to the iToi package.
Whether that package's $150 price tag--or two iTois for $250--will appeal to users is another question entirely. Certainly, the iToi has some benefit if you hold a lot of face-to-face video chats, particularly in business settings. And at the very least, there's more to this video conference tool than initially meets the eye.