Since I left Convoq, the web conferencing start-up here in Boston where I served as CTO, I’ve gotten a lot of calls from companies doing personal video communications products. Some were in the process of raising capital, some were looking to hire, and they all wanted advice.
When this activity was at a particularly high point I remarked to my friend Doug Levin that it looked like another wave of videoconferencing vendors were appearing. He said I'd been involved in enough of these that I should write a book. I didn't want to do that until I could write the happy ending, but I did write a blog post in which I looked at how video calling had been a fixture in science fiction literature for decades but had still not replaced the telephone in the real world. I also asked whether the technology and the culture had evolved to the point that video calling might now be ready for the mainstream.
Notice my choice of words above -- "whether technology and the culture had evolved" -- as I sensed more and more the delicate cultural issues around having your video presence online, your face right there for all to see, might be more of a factor in the adoption of the technology than developers had realized. Many people in the early days of videoconferencing were quite shy about having their faces splashed across the screen, but with social media changing the game, in a Facebook world, these cultural barriers are giving way. People are feeling more at ease seeing and being seen by others. As for the technology, it's been changing too and for the better.
My blog post on videoconfencing caught the attention of Milton Chen, the CEO of VSee Labs a videoconferencing startup in Mountain View, California. Milton's PhD dissertation at Stanford had explored this very topic and described some very innovative work on improving video enough that people would feel comfortable using it. He'd also raised some money, recruited a number of his Stanford colleagues, and started a company to put his ideas into action. After many hours of conversations using the product, I can say that it is the first one where I didn't feel like reaching for the phone halfway through a meeting.
Apparently enough other people feel that way as well, since VSee has some very high profile paying customers, including Shell Oil, NASA, and the government of Singapore. VSee also uses the product internally in some ways that are on the leading edge of how companies organize themselves in this era where travel is expensive and bandwidth is cheap.
The more I looked into it the more I became persuaded that this company may have the critical combination of technology, customers, and timing to propel videoconferencing and real-time collaboration into the mainstream. To make a long story short, I recently accepted the invitation to begin a long-term assignment as Chief Product Officer of VSee.
As I held one-on-one video conversations with members of the VSee team, often as not I reached them working at home, which could be in Amsterdam or China as well as Silicon Valley. One engineer realized he would be between the home and the office at the appointed time, and brought his USB camera with him to an Internet cafe. The developers often keep a conversation nailed up on the screen while they are coding, allowing them to see who's at work, ask a quick question, or look at each other’s code, the way they would if they could yell over to the next cubicle in an office.
Given that VSee is in Mountain View and I live in Boston, I expect to be spending a fair amount of time traveling to meet customers and work with the team. However, video and application sharing will be the day-to-day way we keep in touch. I look forward to writing about how that works, as well as describing some of the innovative ways VSee's customers have been using the product themselves.