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Startup Adds Collaboration Features To Excel

Based on technology its founders developed at Rice University, Advanced Reality wants to let companies add collaborative capabilities within any application. Excel is the first common app for which it has built an off-the-shelf adapter.

Startup Advanced Reality Inc., which aims to help customers add collaborative capabilities to existing applications, will introduce Monday an adapter for Microsoft Excel that will let team members using the popular spreadsheet application work on a single document in real time.

The adapter is built on Advanced Reality's core technology, called Presence-AR, which was developed at Rice University by the company's founders, Jeff Hoye and Derek Ruths. Hoye and Ruths were looking for a way to let scientists collaborate within applications without rewriting source code. The company unveiled the technology as a commercial product in November, and by December it had raised $1.8 million in private funding. Since then, Advanced Reality has developed a custom adapter for a radiological application. It's signed one customer, specialty chemical maker Rohm and Haas Co., which produces Morton Salt, and has done work for five pilot customers.

Ruths, who serves as Advanced Reality's chief technical officer, says the company decided to make Excel the first common app for which it would develop an adapter because so many potential customers have expressed an interest in collaborating on spreadsheets. Ruths says the company can build and deploy an adapter for any application in two to six weeks, at a cost of $50,000 per application. In the case of the Excel adapter, which also runs $50,000, he says it can be extended to users of Lotus 1-2-3 and Sun Microsystems' StarOffice spreadsheet app to create real-time cross-application collaboration on a single document.

Users access collaborative sessions through two buttons added to the Excel interface--one that says "begin collaboration" (or "show session info" when a session is in progress) and one that says "end collaboration." Security features let the owner of a collaborative session define user permission down to the individual cell. Currently, Advanced Reality's adapters can only be used with a local area network, but Ruths says the company will introduce wide area network-enabled adapters later this year. He also says the company will still do custom collaboration development for existing or new applications.

Hurwitz Group analyst Kathleen Quirk says what's most interesting about the technology is how easily it appears to be able to bring employees into a real-time collaborative process using familiar apps. "They don't have to learn a new tool," she says, "and they don't have to change the way they're used to working."

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