Business & Tech

Scott Kirsner | Innovation Economy

Making videoconferences less frustrating

21kirsner -- Owl Labs' videoconferencing product gives remote workers a "split screen" experience, with the whole conference room at the top of the screen and people doing the most talking in larger "panes." (Owl Labs)
Owl Labs
Somerville-based Owl Labs' videoconferencing product gives remote workers a "split screen" experience, with the whole conference room at the top of the screen and people doing the most talking in larger "panes."

If you’ve ever tried to beam into a conference room via video, you know that it’s one of those feats that looks far easier in the movies.

In real life, videoconferencing at work is plagued by clunky software, cameras that offer a bird’s eye view of every bald spot around the conference table, and the dreaded freeze-frame just as someone in the Dallas branch is finally getting around to making a coherent point.

Companies in Boston have been working on bringing video conversations to the office since at least 1984, when a pioneering MIT spin-out company called PictureTel was formed. Three more local startups are still hacking away at the challenge, with products that blend cameras and robotics, and range in price from $800 to north of $50,000.

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If someone can get it right, working from home will actually rival being at HQ, and the number of business trips you take each year could drop significantly.

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One as-yet-unanswered question, though, is whether business users want their videoconferencing primarily to happen in offices and meeting rooms — or whether they want to be able to roam the halls and traverse the warehouse while they talk.

Owl Labs of Somerville is betting on the first scenario. Its product, the $800 Meeting Owl, is light, portable, and elegantly designed. It attaches to a computer via a USB port, sits on a desk or conference table, and is compatible with just about any videoconferencing software, including GoToMeeting, Zoom, or Skype for Business.

The main problem solved by the Meeting Owl is allowing remote participants to have a good view of the action, and better audio as well. Inside the Owl is a camera with a wide-angle lens, and eight microphones. The smarts built into the device help it figure out which participants are talking, and give the remote participant a clear view of those people. What the remote viewer sees is a split-screen image, with big views of the people who have been talking recently, and a wide strip at the top of the screen that shows the entire meeting room.

“We’re trying to take the fancy videoconferencing experience that used to cost $300,000 and be reserved for the boardroom, and give it to everybody in every room,” says Mark Schnittman, Owl Labs’ chief technology officer.

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Schnittman and his co-founder, Max Mekeev, used to work together at iRobot, the Burlington-based maker of the Roomba vacuum cleaner and other robots. “The Owl may not look like a robot to the casual observer,” Schnittman says, “but it’s very much a robot. It has all the software to figure out what it should do when, where the people are, how it should place them on the screen, using all its sensors and computation.”

Owl Labs says about 500 companies now use its product. The company has 18 employees, and has raised a little more than $7 million in funding. Backers include Andy Rubin, a longtime Google executive who was an original co-founder of what became the Android operating system, and Matrix Partners, the Cambridge venture capital firm.

While the Meeting Owl is only 11 inches tall and perches on a flat surface, the VGo V-1000 Telepresence System stands at 4 feet, has two wheels, and can travel anywhere there is wifi or Verizon wireless coverage. VGo is sold by Vecna of Cambridge, and priced at $6,000.

Vecna co-founder Daniel Theobald says that for videoconferencing systems that can be driven around physical spaces — sometimes called “mobile telepresence” — “the biggest market right now is in education. They’re being used to help homebound students be able to participate in a school environment, where they can have the freedom to interact with people, go to recess and hang out with their friends in the hall.” But they’re also being used, Theobald adds, to help doctors visit patients, or to let technicians remotely diagnose problems with equipment. Helping security guards cover more terrain, he predicts, could be a future growth market.

Vecna says it is working on VGo enhancements, including the ability for it to navigate an office without being actively driven by the remote worker, and the ability for outside software developers to write apps that can run on VGo and extend its capabilities.

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Like Owl Labs, the third company, Ava Robotics, has a link to iRobot: it is redesigning a videoconferencing product that was originally developed and sold by iRobot, before it was spun out into an independent entity in 2016, now run by former iRobot executive Marcio Macedo. (Ava also services the first-generation videobots that iRobot sold to customers.)

Ava is a heftier and more imposing version of the VGo. The black and gray Ava looks like it belongs on the Death Star; the white VGo would probably scoot around a Rebel Alliance command center.

“Our focus will continue to be robots that have high-definition video — which is what large enterprises expect today form videoconferencing,” says Macedo. And videobots also need “charisma,” he says. “The product needs to portray the remote user — what we call ‘projected charisma.’ That’s your personality, your status.” Ava has a 22-inch screen that displays the remote worker’s face; VGo’s screen is 6 inches.

The first generation Ava worked only with Cisco’s videoconferencing software, which meant that you couldn’t beam in to an Ava with any other software. But Macedo says the next version will support other kinds of videoconferencing software. Macedo told me in September of last year that the upgraded version would debut in November. That didn’t happen, and when we spoke in December, he didn’t want to be more specific than “early” in 2018. The Cambridge company has 23 employees.

Macedo says the keys to making this next version of the Ava robot a success will be video quality and ease of use. As for the product’s relatively high cost — Macedo expects it to be somewhat less than the $69,500 that iRobot charged for the original Ava — he says, “the customer needs to get enough value out of it to justify the price.”

Macedo has been toiling in the videoconferencing vineyards for a little more than two decades. His first job after graduating from college in 1995 was at PictureTel.

A big difference today: every new videoconferencing company has to compete against free videoconferencing apps like Skype and FaceTime that can run on PCs and mobile phones.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.