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Highfive: A videoconferencing startup hopes to make conference calls feel less like the ninth circle of hell

October 8, 2014 | Telepresence Options


Story and images by Ben Popper / The Verge

A dedicated meeting device from two veterans of Google's enterprise division

Today, the odds are better than ever that the team you work with is composed of people from around the country or even the world. To get together for collaboration and conversation, we arrange conference calls. Unfortunately, conference calls are hell, as depicted in this YouTube video. The reason it has over 8 million views is that it's painfully, hilariously true.

Today a startup called Highfive is unveiling its solution, a $799 gadget that hopes to do for the speakerphone what Nest did for the thermostat. It's an HD video camera with a four-piece microphone array that connects to any screen with an HDMI input. It's paired with a modern software package that makes organizing and joining a meeting feel less like the mental equivalent of walking over hot coals. The goal is a mass-market solution that can carve off a big slice of the $3 billion Cisco and Polycom rake in each year selling teleconferencing machines. "It would be amazing to imbue this category with a little bit of sexiness," says CEO Shan Sinha.

Why are conference calls so universally hellish? That was the question Sinha asked himself two years ago when he left Google, where he ran the company's enterprise apps division. "It turns out that in 2014 the technology we're using to get a group of people connected and talking to one another is 25 years old. You got a screen and speakerphone that was invented in the 1990s, before the internet was a thing, before Wi-Fi was a thing, before mobile devices," he says. Along with Jeremy Roy, who ran engineering on Google+ for enterprise, Shan founded Highfive, raising $13.4 million dollars from A-list names like Marc Benioff, Aaron Levie, Drew Houston, General Catalyst, Google Ventures, and Andreessen Horowitz. They have been building the product and testing it with select customers for two years leading up to today's public launch.

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