I’ve spent roughly half of my career working in branch offices. That means that I’ve devoted thousands of hours to trying to participate in meetings being held on the other side of the country from wherever I was. I don’t even want to think about how much time I’ve lost to technical glitches with the various teleconferencing and videoconferencing systems I’ve been subjected to over the years–or about the meetings I’ve just plain missed, because there was no way to join them from afar.
All of which means that I’m predisposed to be intrigued by a new gadget called Highfive, from a startup of the same name. Its goal: to make high-quality, high-definition videoconferencing so affordable and approachable that there’s no reason not to put it in every conference room.
And there are an awful lot of conference rooms out there for Highfive to go after. Cofounder Shan Sinha told me that even though videoconferencing is a $3.2 billion business, 95% of conference rooms still aren’t wired for it. Existing systems from companies such as Cisco and Polycom are aimed at high-end boardrooms, which makes them too pricey and complex to make sense in most other cases, he says.
Enter Highfive’s device. Engineered to sit atop a flat-screen TV or be mounted to a wall, it has an HD camera, a microphone array, and jacks for HDMI and Ethernet. It costs $799, and is designed to be set up in minutes.
One thing it lacks: a remote control. Instead, you control it from a PC (via a browser-based service) or a smartphone or tablet (iPhones and iPads at first, with support for Android in the works). From your browser or mobile device you can set up a videoconference session or connect to a new one; if there’s a camera in the room, the app will detect it and let you hand off the session to it.
In a feature that’s reminiscent of Apple’s AirPlay, you can also beam whatever’s on your PC screen to every display that’s part of a Highfive session–wirelessly, without having to figure out how to connect your computer to a projector or screen via cable. (That standard hookup process is so error-prone that it’s long been one of the most productivity-crushing workplace tasks there is.)
If you aren’t near a Highfive camera–maybe because you’re offsite and not in a conference room at all–you can still use the web-based service or app. You just use it with the camera built into your device, much as if you were placing a video call with Skype or FaceTime.
Highfive is as much a cloud-based service as it is a piece of hardware. Everything gets routed over the Internet and through the company’s servers, so users don’t have to bother with ensuring that their devices are on the same network as each other or the camera. I wondered if that meant that there’d be service charges which would soon outweigh the initial $799 investment for the camera. But the basic level of service is free, and covers most of what Highfive does. The company also plans to offer Pro accounts which, for $10 per active user per month, add additional features like the ability for people to participate in Highfive meetings via voice call.
Now, it’s not exactly a revelation that it would be nice if there were an affordable and easy way for companies of all sizes to use video for collaboration. Cisco itself briefly tried to tackle that challenge with a product called ūmi, and there have been various other attempts over the years. But nothing in the category has become a staple of meetings everywhere the way that Polycom’s voice-only conference phones did when they first appeared more than two decades ago.
In the demo which Sinha and cofounder Jeremy Roy gave me, Highfive looked and sounded good. Once it supports Android devices as well as Apple ones, the opportunity is there for it to matter a lot.