Vidyo packages conferencing for campuses

Startup Vidyo is now packaging its videoconferencing product for college campuses, which it sees as a natural setting for a system that can bring together multiple participants even on relatively thin network connections.

Vidyo offers videoconferencing based on lightweight software clients, using appliances based on standard rack-mounted servers. It can be delivered from within a customer's own data center or by an outside service provider, such as Google, which uses Vidyo's technology in its Google Chat video feature.

Although Vidyo is capable of delivering high-definition videoconferencing, and the company sells its own high-end room systems, it stands out by being able to offer multipoint sessions without the expensive infrastructure typically required for meetings of many people, analysts said. In addition, users don't need the latest PC nor a high-end Internet connection to join in. A Vidyo customer can also bring in users of other videoconferencing systems based on the H.263 and H.264 standards by using an optional gateway, said Marty Hollander, senior vice president of marketing.

With its new offering, VidyoCampus, universities can introduce this capability to their students, faculty and staff without making any capital investment, Hollander said. Instead, they can buy site licenses with prices based on the number of enrolled students. The smallest, a license for an institution with 5,000 students, costs about US$50,000 per year. The offering is available now.

Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, has installed many different videoconferencing systems over the years but is now starting to use VidyoCampus, said Morteza Rahimi, vice president of information technology and chief technology officer. The most important benefit of Vidyo is that it's easy for users from Northwestern and their contacts around the world to start up and participate in a session without help from the university's technology staff.

"Where videoconferencing (usually) fails is that I have to somehow get our videoconferencing capabilities tied into somebody else's," Rahimi said. With Vidyo, all the IT staff needs to do is provide the client software and a username and password to users inside or outside the university. Those names and passwords can be cancelled when the user's privileges expire, such as when a student graduates, he said.

"Once they have the client on a laptop, they can come in from anywhere," Rahimi said. Northwestern has used Vidyo for sessions with research associates in China and the U.K., and with colleagues across the main campus in Evanston, Illinois, or on the university's Chicago medical campus. As the system is rolled out to students later this year, they will be able to chat visually with their parents, he said.

Rahimi said he is happy that Vidyo offers more flexibility and ease of use and is no more expensive than earlier videoconferencing systems Northwestern has bought

The system is being installed in the offices of many physicians at the medical campus, with video cameras that can be repositioned with a remote to cover just the doctor or a conference table full of people, said Frank Schleicher, IT director in the surgery department. He thinks Vidyo could aid in responding to epidemics, allowing doctors to quickly set up videoconferences with colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control, for example.

Vidyo's software can detect the processor, display and bandwidth characteristics of a given participant's system and automatically adapt to those limitations, Hollander said. A key part of that capability is the fact that is uses SVC (Scalable Video Coding), a part of the H.264 video standard that was approved in 2007.

SVC's ability to deliver decent video quality over networks with packet loss and no guaranteed bandwidth is a major advantage, according to Wainhouse Research analyst Andrew Davis. It may be good not only for companies that rely on the open Internet for videoconferencing but also for those with their own wide-area networks, he said.

"When you connect the New York operation with the Tokyo operation, a lot of times you have wide-area connections that are not as robust" as the enterprise LAN, Davis said.

Just as important, SVC-based systems let more than two people participate in a conference with much lower latency -- or much lower cost -- than do other platforms, according to Davis. That's because videoconferencing systems typically need an MCU (multiconference unit), a specialized hardware appliance that often is expensive and also can introduce processing delays, he said.

Vidyo isn't alone in using SVC. Radvision last year introduced an MCU that supports it, and Polycom announced on Tuesday that it will introduce an SVC system next year. Davis expects the standard to be widely adopted but believes big vendors will face a challenge in making SVC products compatible with older systems. Polycom said it will solve that problem.

Analyst Michael Howard of Infonetics Research said the approach Vidyo is pursuing may be the key to broad adoption of videoconferencing at last, including ad hoc sessions for purchase from service providers.

"I've been watching this for some time, expecting some kind of personal videoconferencing to have happened by now, but it hasn't," Howard said.

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