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Highfive wants to become the Nest of B2B video conferencing

Conference calls are notoriously unproductive, and one company wants to fix that with simple videoconferencing.

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Credit: Thinkstock

Today, Highfive announced its video collaboration cloud service and purpose-built camera intent on inspiring business users to jump into face-to-face video conferences more often.

During conference calls, 21% of respondents to an Intercall survey of 530 U.S. business users said they shop online, while 25% said they play video games and 65% do other work.

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Highfive CEO Shan Sinha wants to change this, along with company culture, by replacing conference calls with conference-room-wide video calls integrated with a cloud-based video collaboration application and an integrated camera, speaker, and microphone. The company has raised $13.4 million from investors such as Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff, Box founder and CEO Aaron Levie, Dropbox founder and CEO Drew Houston, Google Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, and General Catalyst Partners.

Collaborative remote meetings suffer from more than a lack of employee attention. The first few minutes of remote meetings burn up time as users grapple with dial-in codes and web collaboration tools like Webex and GoToMeeting. Once everyone is connected, they settle in to the same old weekly conference call. It's something that people have to do. I'’s old technology that doesn't inspire better communications. Sinha wants to inspire people to jump into video collaboration meetings in every conference room by improving the user experience.

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Highfive has set its sights on removing the friction of the B2B conference room multiuser video and collaboration experience. The company ships a nice piece of hardware, but it's not the centerpiece of Highfive's strategy. Its strategy is to enable the 24 million conference rooms with multiuser video and collaboration that takes less than two minutes to install, just seconds to initiate a session, and sells for $795. Highfive has picked a large market. The 1.1 million conference rooms with much more expensive Polycom and Cisco equipment is valued at $3.2 billion.

The setup experience is straightforward and reminiscent of Google’s simple Chromecast user experience. It also resembles the Nest thermostat that made managing temperature in the home simple and mobile. Plug the Highfive camera into a power outlet and HDMI port, mount the camera on top of the meeting room LCD or on the wall, log into the local Wi-Fi, and Highfive conferencing is operational.

Highfive built its user experience on a cloud service. Conferences are created using a browser-based web service or smartphone app. A customized link can then be shared with meeting invitees and the invitation can be added to Outlook and Google calendars. The conference organizer can cast the conference to a large-screen conference room LCD equipped with Highfive’s camera from a browser or with a swipe on a smartphone. A desktop application, such as the ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation, can be cast to all locations. But with HD audio and video, the speaker is much less dependent on a PowerPoint presentation to keep the audience’s attention and make his or her point.

Remote users can access the conference from a browser or mobile app if they have a trusted email domain, or they can authenticate using Google OAUTH. The conference can then be cast to a meeting room equipped with a Highfive camera. An un-trusted or un-authenticated user can be added to the conference. When this user enters the conference they snap picture that is presented to the conference organizer, who can admit or reject the user’s request to join. The mobile app cleverly uses Bluetooth to recognize and grant access to Highfive cameras in every conference room that the user steps into.

The cloud service does more than just schedule, distribute, secure, and setup meetings. Large meetings could overwhelm the network, with each Highfive camera broadcasting its live HD audio and video feed to every other user. Full HD quality requires 1 MBS. A 20-location conference would need 20 MB, which isn’t a big load on network infrastructure but could overwhelm a Wi-Fi access network. HighFive’s closest competitor, the Tely Pro that Skype recommends with similar features and in the same price range, reduces the video resolution as the number of locations in the conference increase, presumably because the Tely Pro and Skype lack multiplexing and every location broadcasts to every other location.

The hardware is nicely designed and beautifully packaged. The most notable feature is audio beam forming and beam sharing that focus the microphone cleanly on the person speaking and cancel out ambient noise. It’s a complicated process, but this video explains it in 45 seconds.

The basic cloud service is free and supports up to 10 simultaneous locations. The Pro version costs $10 per month per active user and includes unlimited phone minutes for those calling in on phones, single sign-on, custom branding, and town halls. Town halls mode allows the conference organizer to select one user in the conference and keep their video, audio, and data feed on the screen, overriding the loudest voice algorithm that determines which user’s stream is projected to the others.

Prior to the announcement, Highfive has established early customers such as Mimio and claims about 100 customers in total. There is work ahead, though. The company needs to deliver a few items, such as an Android version of the client. And considering that related cloud-based video services Blue Jeans Network and Vidyo have each raised around $100 million in funding, Highfive will need to raise more money in bigger rounds as it scales its business.

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