The Star Trek analogy comes easily. As I sat in the conference room at
the Silicon Valley headquarters of Avistar and made a video call to an office
of investment bank UBS Warburg in
England, the smooth, clear connection made me think of Captain Jean Luc
Picard’s lifelike communiques with Star Fleet light years away from his
Starship Enterprise. The Avistar videoconference system isn’t interstellar,
but it can handle Planet Earth communications just fine.
Video calling and conferencing have been around for years, but Avistar,
which was founded in 1993, has taken a no-compromise approach to create a
solution for desktop users. The company refers to its video performance as
“TV quality” and lived up to the claim during a 40-minute video call
interview with UBSW. Superb picture quality is matched by unnoticeable
latency. (Avistar says delays are typically in the mere hundreds of
milliseconds for the video and synchronized audio.)
So far Avistar’s primary niche has been with financial services
customers, with manufacturing an up-and-coming secondary market, and health
care next in line. Avistar has picked niche markets where customers can
justify the cost of its networked interactive video platform. A 50-user
pilot system, including a dedicated media server, desktop cameras, speakers,
and operating system, can run from $50,000 to $100,000. Avistar marketing
director John Carlson says the system typically pays for itself in a year by
saving on travel costs and other intangibles.
Large companies with far-flung branch offices and divisions are
well-suited to Avistar’s products, which boast an edge over competitors that
don’t scale as easily. UBS Warburg dipped its toe with a trial Avistar
system in 1998 that linked 60 users. Today the financial services company,
which has offices in 31 countries, each month has some 1,100 employees
making over 30,000 Avistar video calls averaging more 500,000 minutes.
While UBSW traders also use instant messaging, the telephone, and other
tools to stay in touch, the immediacy and richness of the Avistar system
enabled the company to create its first virtual global trading team that
operates throughout the entire trading day.
Video calls from your desk
Andy Konchan, executive director of e-commerce at UBSW, says video
calling has already become a “mission critical” application for some of the
company’s traders, senior managers, and researchers. UBS has even installed
Avistar at some of its biggest client companies to facilitate
“Before Avistar we had boardroom video, but now you can make a (video)
call right from your desk and it’s more efficient,” says Konchan. “And, if
you can use it from your desk, video becomes an application you’ll use
A directory of names shows who is on the system and potentially available
for a call. You can also send a text message if the receiver is busy or
doesn’t answer. Since users can log in from any location on the network, the
caller doesn’t necessarily know, or need to know, what office or location
she is calling.
The network software also manages calling services in the background,
checking, for example, if it’s cheaper to call from San Francisco to Paris
or Paris to S.F., then making the call via the least expensive route
regardless of where it originates.
UBSW uses a combination of ISDN and dedicated lines to connect its users.
In recent years Avistar has evolved its system to work over an Internet
Protocol network, which UBSW is starting to take advantage of for lower
connection costs. Avistar also adheres to network standards such as H.320.
Because of that interconnectivity, Konchan says, UBSW is able to
communicate with customers using non-Avistar video systems such as
Konchan lauds Avistar’s simple point-and-click interface and features.
Beyond video calls, UBSW uses Avistar to record and broadcast presentations
to its staff and customers. Users can select multiple feeds and have a
videoconference meeting right at the desktop with different users in
separate windows on the screen. There also are select content feeds
available so, for example, you can pipe in CNN in one window for everyone
(or just yourself) to watch.
The downside? There is little from Konchan’s perspective, though he
readily admits people can get addicted to using the system. He also says
that like most parts of the IT infrastructure, Avistar needs to be
“The comments we get back from users tell us it’s all manageable, but if
you’re using ISDN it’s not a technology that gives you 99 percent uptime,”
says Konchan. And while Avistar doesn’t feature the PC’s infamous
CTRL-ALT-DEL key combination to reboot, Konchan says bad or missed
connections can usually be resolved by quitting the call and trying a second
time. Support contracts are available from Avistar, or companies can use
their own internal network support staff, as UBSW does.
But aside from the occasional glitch, Konchan says Avistar has proven
itself in saving on travel costs and the improved quality of communication.
He adds: “One thing about this versus using the telephone is that when
someone knows you can see them, you have their full attention.”
And you don’t have to be a starship commander to appreciate that.
David Needle is a Silicon Valley-based freelance writer who has
covered the high-tech industry since 1981.