Finally, Foolproof Teleconferencing (I Hope)

Finally, Foolproof Teleconferencing (I Hope)
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How much do you hate Polycom? GoToMeeting? Vidyo? Skype? Or whatever the hell else you use to hold meetings with distant colleagues? Well, I’m here to tell you that somebody may have finally figured out a foolproof way to make teleconferencing actually work. “May” because I only spent 10 minutes with the so-called solution, but it impressed the heck out of me anyhow.

Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Buy this lovely aluminium-clad camera for $US800. Plug it into a TV in your conference room.

Step 2: Download the Highfive app, and any time you’re within about 30 feet of the camera, your phone, tablet or laptop will automatically pair with the camera over Bluetooth. Automatically! I can’t stress that enough. Perform first-time setup (you know, Wi-Fi and stuff).

Step 3: Now anyone with the Highfive app can start a meeting. Just type in a conference name, and you’ve begun. Slide your thumb across a single obvious button to magically beam your conference to the TV if you’re within Bluetooth range. Press a single obvious button on your laptop, and you’re instantly sharing your screen with everyone.

Step 4: Press a single obvious button to add participants, and each will get an email with a link. Tap the link and you’re logged into the meeting: no usernames or passcodes needed. Don’t have the app? It will shoot you right over to the app store to download that too, then automatically log you in without requiring a single additional click. I can attest to that.

Step 5: If you invite people who aren’t in your company domain, they will need to be approved by the organiser. Guess what: it’s easy! They have to take a selfie with their smartphone camera, and up pops their face on the organiser’s app. One tap later, they’re in the meeting.

Step 6: There is no step six. Unless you need to mute yourself or turn off your camera. Two more obvious buttons, by the way. Oh, and don’t bother paying a monthly bill unless you want IT-friendly features. The basic service is FREE.

To be frank, I don’t know if Highfive executives were right that competing solutions cost upwards of $US20,000, because I don’t buy Polycom teleconferencing systems on a regular basis, but I’ve never heard of anything this easy. I watched them demo it right in front of me, took it for a spin myself, and started wondering what the catch could be.

There are a few possibilities. Right now, you can only have up to 10 remote participants in a call, and you can only see one video stream at a time. There’s no Android app yet, and the iOS 8 version is still under review. I couldn’t get a good handle on call quality: although the 1080p camera definitely seemed fit to cover a conference room with its 170-degree field of view, it doesn’t have any tilt or zoom, and I couldn’t tell how well the four-microphone beamforming array did at echo and noise cancellation.

Plus, I have to wonder: Why has nobody ever used Bluetooth to auto-negotiate connections like this? It’s amazing. They couldn’t say — only that the Bluetooth handoff is secure because both the app and the camera authenticate your work email domain.

But they sure do have a lot of people convinced that it’s a good idea. Highfive says they have signed up over a hundred customers already, including Warby Parker, Shutterfly, Hotel Tonight, Mimeo and NxStage (a home dialysis equipment firm). They have raised $US13.5 million from Andreessen Horowitz, General Catalyst and Google Ventures, as well as Marc Benioff (Salesforce), Drew Houston (Dropbox), Aaron Levie (Box) and Shishir Mehotra (YouTube), among others.

Highfive founders Shan Sinha and Jeremy Roy also created Docverse, which became the real-time collaboration feature of Google Docs when they were acquired in 2010. Now, they’re comparing themselves to Nest, which is pretty common for hardware startups these days. (Wouldn’t you like your second company to get bought by Google too?) But Highfive feels like it could be the real deal. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.