From science fiction to desktop for telepresence
Telepresence was science fiction in the 50s, a Disneyland attraction in the 60s, and eventually morphed into costly corporate “telepresence rooms” and other high-end systems, which relied on expensive dedicated communications lines.
Vidyo, a start-up company in New Jersey, says it has invented the next generation of teleconferencing that is cheaper and more portable, in part by using the Web to transmit, getting around the need for special communications lines and instead using the Web. It says that it will make teleconferencing available in offices, homes and hotels – and not just in boardrooms.
“Our product is a breakthrough to democratize telepresence and make it more affordable and portable,” said Ofer Shapiro, chief executive of Vidyo. Shapiro knows the earlier generation. He led the design team at Radvision in the 1990s that designed a key piece of equipment called a Multipoint Control Unit, or MCU, still in use today. Shapiro thinks it obsolete.
Most teleconferencing offered today by such dominant players as Tandberg and Polycom, depends on MCUs, which are refrigerator-sized appliances that take television pictures from individual feeds, re-digest them and then put them together as Hollywood Square style pictures on a single screen.
The companies are players in a market projected to explode. Research firm Gartner says Teleconferencing among corporate users is projected to increase nearly 30-fold by 2015, to 200 million from 7 million last year.
Recently Cisco bid to buy market leader Tandberg for $3.4 billion while Logitech, the world’s top computer mouse maker, is to buy privately held video conferencing group LifeSize Communications for $405 million.
One analyst, who asked not to be identified, said that what Cisco bought was market share, an established customer base that includes government agencies, and a system that is standardized to inter-operate with others. Tandberg, the biggest player, and second-placed Polycom together hold around three-quarters of the market.
Vidyo would change those standards. Shapiro’s group has eliminated the MCU, which means that signals don’t need to be re-processed. That and new standards that change how “packets” of information are handled on the Web has eliminated freezing and stuttering videos associated with the Web.
That makes it possible for people to use the Vidyo conferencing system from laptops, and gets rid of dedicated communications. And it means that dozens of people can be on one conference, with the pictures of nine on a screen at any one time. The people appearing on the screen change easily and automatically, depending on who is talking. But it’s not just about who is talking.
“Everyone thinks teleconferencing is about seeing the speaker. No. It’s about seeing people’s reactions. When I see someone on Vidyo I can see what you’re thinking,” said Martin Hollander, senior vice president of marketing at Vidyo.
Even though Vidyo for the moment is only a blip on the screen, analyst Rohit Chopra of Wedbush wrote earlier this month that he believes it will change the industry.
“A solution which offers a cheaper conferencing experience with higher quality, represents a threat to traditional vendors and could alter the economics of the industry,” Chopra said. He predicted that it could emerge as a disruptive force in the next one to two years.
(Photo of Star Trek set: Reuters)