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Full Nelson: ViVu Ships Skype Plug-In

Despite the allure of this tweener videoconferencing product, our testing reveals several shortcomings.

ViVu's Skype plug in
(click image for larger view)
ViVu's Skype plug in makes it simple to add Skype users to a multi-party video call, complete with desktop sharing, slides and chat.
When startup ViVu launched its cloud-based videoconference and collaboration system last October, it marked another interesting dividing line between affordable desktop-oriented systems (like Vidyo and Skype) and room-based telepresence systems (like Cisco and Polycom). Today, ViVu announced an alluring Skype plug-in, but despite its surface sexiness, our testing revealed a few weaknesses. We won't be tossing out our Polycom systems just yet, but ViVu's future looks promising.

First, to the tricky task of defining ViVu: It's tricky only because terms like "collaboration" and "telepresence" and "cloud" get so promiscuously applied. ViVu offers videoconferencing within a browser, and because it can also pump PowerPoint, video (FLV), flash files (SWF), and images (PNG), and allows desktop sharing, it can also serve as a low-cost Webcasting system for internal or external purposes (CEO-led corporate-wide addresses, internal training, customer outreach, etc). It does not support PDF files. You can link to or embed the archived session output. ViVu says it can scale to thousands of clients. We hosted only a four-party conference in our Skype tests. (There are a few more details on ViVu's core offering below.)

While most companies don't use Skype for mass communication, beyond its free price tag (for calls to other Skype users), Skype provides presence and convenience. The benefit is the ability to use that fact to create an instant collaborative video call where images and slide decks get shared. For small teams, this is perfect. Of course, Skype offers its own video capability (and desktop sharing), but ViVu includes multiparty video in a much cleaner interface, running on a managed platform (more on what ViVu does to optimize performance below).

The installation wasn't as clean as I'd like to see. For one thing, at the time of our testing the Java encoding software was still using 32-bit libraries, and my system defaulted to 64 bit; I had to go in and change some system preferences. Hopefully, this gets fixed in the shipping version. Once installed, ViVu prompts users, asking if they want a call ViVu-enabled.

I did some preliminary testing with my colleague David Berlind and our CIO, David Michael, and we needed to bring on one of the ViVu engineers to help us with a couple of challenges. I'll chalk these up to instabilities in beta code, but we had to shut ViVu down and restart a couple of times before we were all online. However, the quality of the video was very high, and it was relatively easy to figure out how to chat and push slides. I say "relatively": some of the functions (like getting a link to invite other users) required a few too many extra clicks and hunting around -- a killer for impatient end users. If you're going to make something easy to set up using presence, the rest of the experience has to be equally invisible.

Speaking of which, it's easy enough to make a video window bigger, to add in more Skype participants on the fly using Skype's add user feature, and to tile and hide items. Interestingly, ViVu doesn't use Skype chat (it doesn't prevent it, it's just not in the ViVu user interface); it uses its own. The Skype version also doesn't provide a recording, which is due to another important and irritating flaw: There is a slight delay (a few seconds) or lack of synchronization between the audio and video. ViVu says it is working on this and referenced the lack of buffer controls in the Flash API for the client player using the high-quality H.264 codec. ViVu uses Java software to encode the video stream from the host system, but the video plays in Flash. ViVu expects to ship a Java client player in six months, and that should fix this problem.

ViVu supports standard Webcams (built-in, USB, firewire), or any connected camera (even higher-end ones). But co-founder and CEO Sudha Valluru said the company is not trying to replace large, high-quality telepresence systems. Valluru was part of a 1998 startup, Precept Software, along with Judith Estrin. The company's technology provided MPEG over IP. Cisco eventually bought it.

The ViVu Skype plug-in is $9.95. Participants can be invited for free -- that is, they don't need the plug-in (nor do they need Skype) and can share their video (though it may not be guaranteed the highest quality) and slides. Those invited users get a link and join the meeting in a browser. The Web solution, which also includes a few other corporate features (described below), is $49.95 for a host license, which allows an event with more than 25 people. It supports both Windows (Skype v 3.0 or higher) and Mac (Skype v 2.0 or higher).

The company intends to support GTalk, AIM, and other instant messaging platforms.

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