ViVu is a new webcast technology company that just announced investment funding to get its first commercial release to market. I had a chance to work with the software in a video chat with the company’s management team, and also did a bit of testing using the free trial on their website.
The central focus of ViVu is on connecting audiences where everybody has a video and sound connection. The software has a unique interface that lets you see thumbnail images of an entire room full of participants, even when that number is in the hundreds or thousands. It displays a view that is supposed to be analogous to what you would see when standing on a stage looking out into a crowded room. So the first rows are larger and clearer, with farther rows smaller and less distinct. But unlike in a real auditorium, you can click to focus on any row. You can also see when someone has a question or requests the floor and optionally open their microphone.
The software is Flash and Java based, running in most major browsers and operating systems without the need for downloads and installs. However participants are given a popup suggestion to load a High Quality Streaming Video add-in, which takes a few minutes to download and install. This raises the smoothness and responsiveness of the video.
When I initially installed the HQ encoder in our demonstration video chat, I saw good smooth quality on my high speed cable modem connection. But in further tests at home, I ran into problems getting a quality video feed to my second computer. Images showed a great deal of pixilation and about a 1.5 second lag in motion responsiveness. I couldn’t get the checkbox option to load the HQ encoder, so it’s unclear what was happening. [UPDATE: There was a control button for installing the HQ encoder on the host computer that I didn't find when trying out the software. It looks like an electrical plug with a red X on it and is unlabeled. I thought it would end the session! I have tried loading the encoder during a session and ran into some error messages during the install followed by an inability to show any video. I'll work with their support tomorrow and report on the resolution. UPDATE 2: It looks like my problem was a Vista security block that kept their install program from running automatically. They sent me the install file and I was able to run it from my desktop as an administrator. Everything is working and the video with the HQ encoder installed is much faster and smoother. No pixilation in the image. The video lag between North Carolina and California was approximately one second.]
One quirk that quickly grew exasperating was a random tendency to flash a title bar in a big bold strip across the speaker’s video. By default it just says “HOST”, although you can change it to the person’s name (or any other fun title you want to make up). The title bar comes and goes, and is always tremendously distracting. [UPDATE: ViVu says they are making changes to this behavior.]
In addition to live audio and video, ViVu lets you upload graphic files for display, recorded video clips, and PowerPoint decks. I uploaded my PowerPoint Torture Test and found that the converter they use had a few problems. It misconverted some text fonts and one gradient fill on a shape. The converter also ignores animation effects and slide transitions, so you need to plan on using a static image presentation. I was slightly annoyed that as the presenter, I saw overlay controls on top of my slide content. You lose visibility of an entire band along the bottom of your slide, along with some space at the top. I’d like to see them move those controls off the active content area of the slides. This does not affect the audience’s view however. [UPDATE: I'm really red-faced about this one. I simply didn't check an option box to retain animations during the upload process. With the option selected, slide transitions and animations worked very well! It also fixed the color gradient conversion problem I noted in the static upload. There was a commonly-seen problem with not converting certain text fonts, but overall it did a very good job. Sorry about that, ViVu!]
The software lets you publish polls for audience response in either single answer or “choose all that apply” formats. You can list up to five choices. Once again I had some difficulties in getting the poll to appear on my second computer in a meeting. When you run into troubles of this sort, it can be a bit frustrating, as there is no online help either in the meeting or on the company website.
I also tested out the screen sharing capabilities, which are limited to showing your entire desktop – There is no facility for selecting a single application or user-defined area. In my testing, lag times were 15 seconds on most movements, making them extremely impractical for most types of live demonstrations. [UPDATE: ViVu says this is most likely because I was running both the host and attendee computer off the same home router, overloading my local circuitry. I'll try a remote network test when I can. But I have to say that this is my standard test procedure for web conferencing technologies. UPDATE 2: I tested screen sharing with another network. Lag time was approximately four seconds, which is much better. Not as good as the best in the industry, but that is not the company's focus, and it is good enough for occasional use.]
There is an open chat functionality, letting all participants view and type messages. You cannot switch it to a “webinar mode” (my term), where only presenters and facilitators can see incoming messages.
As a host, you have the option of scheduling a meeting for a specified date and time or starting one on an ad hoc basis. You can send invitations and optionally require attendees to use a password.
The CEO, Sudha Valluru, said that they have stress tested the technology with a simulated 10,000-user meeting, so scaling should not be a problem. [UPDATE: Bad reporting here... That was not a stress test, but a live event with 10,000 participants for the AlwaysOn Summit at Stanford. UPDATE 2: There were 10,000 participants cumulative over the entire multi-day event. Maximum simultaneous connections were a few thousand, and ViVu says they saw no signs of performance degradation.]
Licensing models include monthly unlimited use subscriptions (listed on their site as $49.95/month) and enterprise licenses, which allow branding and customization as well as larger numbers of hosts and participants.
As I noted, this initial launch includes some of the inevitable teething pains found in complex software solutions. But once ViVu gets some additional support resources online and smoothes out some of the rough edges, this should fit in nicely with the growing business interest in video-centric conferencing capabilities.