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This startup hopes to make conference calls feel less like the ninth circle of hell

This startup hopes to make conference calls feel less like the ninth circle of hell


A dedicated meeting device from two veterans of Google's enterprise division

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Today, the odds are better than ever that the team you work with is composed of people from around the country or even the world. To get together for collaboration and conversation, we arrange conference calls. Unfortunately, conference calls are hell, as depicted in this YouTube video. The reason it has over 8 million views is that it’s painfully, hilariously true.

Today a startup called Highfive is unveiling its solution, a $799 gadget that hopes to do for the speakerphone what Nest did for the thermostat. It’s an HD video camera with a four-piece microphone array that connects to any screen with an HDMI input. It’s paired with a modern software package that makes organizing and joining a meeting feel less like the mental equivalent of walking over hot coals. The goal is a mass-market solution that can carve off a big slice of the $3 billion Cisco and Polycom rake in each year selling teleconferencing machines. "It would be amazing to imbue this category with a little bit of sexiness," says CEO Shan Sinha.

Why are conference calls so universally hellish? That was the question Sinha asked himself two years ago when he left Google, where he ran the company’s enterprise apps division. "It turns out that in 2014 the technology we’re using to get a group of people connected and talking to one another is 25 years old. You got a screen and speakerphone that was invented in the 1990s, before the internet was a thing, before Wi-Fi was a thing, before mobile devices," he says. Along with Jeremy Roy, who ran engineering on Google+ for enterprise, Shan founded Highfive, raising $13.4 million dollars from A-list names like Marc Benioff, Aaron Levie, Drew Houston, General Catalyst, Google Ventures, and Andreessen Horowitz. They have been building the product and testing it with select customers for two years leading up to today’s public launch.

The technology we're using is more than two decades old The hardware is comprised of a compact black box between two aluminum wings — kind of a miniature starfighter in appearance — that sits atop a flat-screen or mounts on the wall. I experienced a live demo of a call between New York and California and the picture it delivers is a lot nicer than what you would get with your standard webcam. A lot of my frustration during conference calls comes from people talking over one another because of audio lag, or remote callers getting muted and speaking into the void for minutes before they realize what’s going on. Highfive’s most obvious solution to this is making it cheap and easy enough to always opt for a visual. "It’s about replacing the audio call with the video call," says Shan. In fact, at launch, there’s no audio-only mode at all. Clothing is no longer optional for that 8AM meeting.

Like Google Hangouts, Highfive detects who the active speaker is and puts them on-screen for everyone to see. To ensure that everyone in a large office can be heard, the microphone array targets whoever is talking. "It can detect who’s speaking within 30 feet, locks onto that person, and cancels out background noise," says Dave King, the company’s head of marketing. During the live demo four people in a large room talked to a unit about 10 feet away without anyone on the other end having trouble hearing us. The lag was minimal enough that our conversation felt seamless and natural, although that will inevitably depend a lot on the quality of your connection and the ability of Highfive to scale its cloud to meet demand.

The code you entered was not correctThe other half of Highfive is the software. There have been many nightmarish meetings where I sat down at a speakerphone and watched the organizer input the host code time and again, only to be told the digits she pressed were wrong. That’s a different form of torture from arriving to a meeting and realizing that no one in the room has the host code, which sends us scrambling like blind ducklings to find someone with the authority to get a meeting going. Clicking a calendar link from your mobile phone and being asked to enter two different nine-digit codes to locate and access your meeting is a separate circle of hell.

With Highfive, the meeting is a simple link. Click it to launch the mobile app or open a tab on your desktop browser. Purchasing the unit gives you unlimited audio, video, and screen sharing with up to 10 people for free. (For more advanced features and town hall services that a larger company would require, the cost is $10 per active user per month.) There are no access, host, or participant codes. In fact much of the traditional meeting hierarchy is stripped away, replaced with a perhaps naive faith in basic human decency and decorum.

"It works the way we do in real life.""There is no concept of a presenter or a participant, you just join a conversation," says Sinha. If somebody is presenting and you want to show them an alternative, you just click a button and it will take over the screen from the other person, "What’s unique about that is, it works the way we do on real life. If somebody is up at the whiteboard, you’re not gonna just walk up to them and snatch the pen out of their hand." Highfive trusts you to telegraph your intentions and coordinate who is owning the screen.

The best part of the demo was the way the mobile app uses Bluetooth LE, not to connect, but simply to detect nearby Highfive units. It then prompts you to throw the meeting from your device to the big screen. You can then initiate a presentation from that device with a tap, no wires needed. This is much simpler than having to be on the same Wi-Fi network, which might not be easy if you’re presenting while traveling or in a space with private and guest networks.

Bluetooth LE also means that, if you need to pick up and change rooms because a meeting ran late, you could keep the call going on your smartphone and then toss it to a different screen (with a Highfive) after you switched locations. The only drawback is that not every laptop has Bluetooth yet, in which case you need to manually enter the URL of the unit you want to pair with.

When I met up with the Highfive guys, I had actually just been through a grating conference call. Using the device felt like breaking into the near future. That’s probably not surprising given Sinha’s pedigree. "I saw a vision of what is possible first­hand at Google," he told me. Every conference room has a video system. No more conference calls. No more projectors. "Google did this for 4,000 conference rooms and 40,000 people and it completely transformed the way we communicated."

"They spent $100 million on Cisco gear to get that all to work."Of course, that wasn’t cheap. "They spent $100 million on Cisco gear to get that all to work." That was version one. Google subsequently chucked the Cisco gear and built its own custom box that integrated with Hangouts, which it now sells as a Chromebox packed with some off-the-shelf parts. Highfive is a bit cheaper, integrates all the pieces into a single unit, and doesn’t require a separate remote control or a Google+ account.

"You have all this activity going on to make homes smart. Nest building a new thermostat, Dropcam giving you easy access to monitor your house," says Sinha. At work, however, there has been little of the same revolution, technology that modernizes the stodgy equipment we all interact with on a daily basis. "That’s the product we created."