Videoconferencing wins over more than just rocket scientists

Videoconferencing is becoming a compelling technology that can allow government customers to collaborate without leaving their offices or spending time and money on travel.

When the Logitech camera in Austin, Texas, zoomed in on a penny and viewers in a conference room in Herndon, Va., could clearly see Lincoln seated in his memorial, it became apparent that LifeSize Communications’ high-definition videoconferencing system was living up to its name.

Video is becoming a compelling technology that can allow government customers to collaborate without leaving their offices, said LifeSize Vice President Paul Cantwell, who joined the company in July 2010 to strengthen its newly formed federal sector.

“I really think we’re entering the market with a strong story to tell at a time when we can help the government continue to do business in these tough budget times,” Cantwell said. “It’s a technology that does well in tough budget times.”

Company executives say government telecommunications is a largely untapped $50 million a year market.

LifeSize Communications’ high-definition TV technology is designed to impress potential government clients, especially those whose budgets are under a microscope and whose travel funds are under the axe.

In fact, the LifeSize technology impressed Logitech executives so much that — like the entrepreneur Victor Kiam, who fell in love with his Remington electric razor — they bought the company in December 2009 for $405 million in cash.

Reviewing the LifeSize system in March, Washington Technology’s sister publication Government Computer News called it “one of the best high-quality videoconferencing tools we have seen, and it would be a huge boon in any educational setting. In fact, it’s almost as good as being there.”

LifeSize was formed in 2003 by a group of Polycom Inc. employees in Austin who wanted to produce high-definition TV for the enterprise that was easy to use and inexpensive. Start-up funding came from Austin Ventures, a local venture capital provider.

“The whole video industry is really evolving, and we like to think it will continue to morph itself eventually to become the preferred medium of communication,” Cantwell said. “Rather than picking up a phone, you’ll make a quick video call and see the person. You can look him in the eye and have an engaged conversation.”

Cantwell said LifeSize is not jumping into the 3-D video craze because it is focusing on driving down the cost of high-def videoconferencing.

Besides, 3-D requires a great deal of bandwidth, and even though its cost continues to come down, most government agencies don’t have unlimited bandwidth or the money to pay for it, he added.

LifeSize, on the other hand, operates on the Internet, so there are no extra costs for bandwidth.

One of LifeSize’s biggest customers is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center run by California Institute of Technology under a contract from NASA.

JPL’s 5,000 employees are spread across 100 buildings on the Pasadena, Calif., campus.

Executives there wanted to communicate face to face with their counterparts across the sprawling campus, their colleagues at the 10 NASA centers around the country and the many other employees, contractors and business partners around the world.

They also wanted to reduce nonproductive travel downtime and expenses.

JPL had been doing videoconferencing at NASA for a number of years and was looking at high-end solutions such as Cisco Systems Inc.’s TelePresence or Hewlett-Packard Co.’s HP Halo system, which was introduced in 2005, the same year LifeSize launched its first video product.

“Both of those high-end systems at the time were in the $400,000 range for one system. And then you needed somebody at the other end to talk to,” said Todd Lucas, of Computer Sciences Corp., which has a communications support contract with JPL.

Just to get two people talking would require an investment of almost $1 million.

CSC technicians told the rocket scientists that they could have a LifeSize system for $20,000 or less that would have 90 percent of the capability of the high-end systems at 5 percent of the cost, said Lucas, who was the initial CSC leader on the project.

LifeSize set up a demonstration system in 2008 using two JPL conference rooms. To further prove the value of the system, LifeSize expanded the demonstration for several months with one system at the local CSC offices, another in the office of JPL’s CIO and the third in the building where many of the JPL’s IT employees work.

“We called it Remote-Face-to-Face,” Lucas said.

Another expanded demo followed, this one with scientists involved in the Mars Rover program: at JPL headquarters in Pasadena, at the University of Arizona in Tucson and at Lockheed Martin’s aerospace research facility in Boulder, Colo.

One didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the value of the system. The LifeSize solution was much less expensive, and the high-end market has been in the throes of consolidation during the past two years.

In 2010, Cisco purchased Tandberg ASA for $3.4 billion. In May, Microsoft Corp. announced that it would pay $8.5 billion for the popular Skype system. And in June, Hewlett-Packard sold HP Halo to videoconferencing provider Polycom Inc. for a paltry $89 million, ostensibly to focus on expanding HP’s Internet cloud services.

Analysts said HP Halo could not find a broad audience, and the company’s share of the high-end videoconferencing business was tiny.

CSC has also set up LifeSize systems in Canberra, Australia; Madrid; Goldstone, Calif.; and the JPL campus to coordinate and manage the deep-space probes satellite program.

“Our high-definition videoconferencing effort paid off,” said Tom Soderstrom, CTO at JPL's Office of the CIO, in an e-mail message. Employees use the system  to communicate with personnel at other NASA centers, industry partners, universities and the European Space Agency, he said.

“We even ship the systems out to launch sites to ensure that people can have meaningful remote conversations when it's really critical that they do,” he added.

JPL, which has about 40 high-definition videoconferencing systems, also has made significant progress in its goal to enable videoconferencing from any device to any device, including high-definition systems, desktop PCs, laptops and mobile devices, Soderstrom said.

“All this testing has made us realize that industry solutions are currently in a state of rapid flux and the solutions will look very different a year from now. So we're putting the finishing touches on a pragmatic six-month videoconferencing road map that will help guide JPLers on how to get the best remote face-to-face experience possible in any situation and with any device,” he said.