Highfive - Simple Video, No Remotes

12 Oct 2014

Last week, a new company, Highfive, emerged as a video conferencing system provider. I met with Shan Sinha, CEO and Founder, and Dave King, VP of Product Marketing, and they explained why they believe that Highfive is poised to change video. The team at Highfive comes from Google and Apple, and the investors in Highfive are a fairly impressive group and the $17.5M invested so far shows they believe in the concept.

While Highfive has a new video platform, it is really not transformational or unique, because what Highfive has done is not really profoundly different than anything before, it is just better in some significant ways. In many ways, Highfive is to video conferencing as the original iPhone was to the other smart devices of the time, limited in some key ways, but with a resulting simplicity that the average user might find opens the door to use and will drive adoption.

Highfive starts with a simple room system unit with a camera and microphones. On the surface it is similar to devices such as the Tely Labs telyHD Pro, however, there are some simple and significant differences. While other room systems have remotes and can be used stand-alone, the Highfive does not have a remote and cannot be used stand-alone; more on that a bit later. Also, the long bars on the sides of the Highfive unit have four microphones that use beam shaping and other techniques to optimize the sound without an external microphone. This eliminates those pesky cables and remote microphones.

At the core, Highfive is a cloud-based video conferencing/meeting system. The company uses a WebRTC-derived stack with H.264 coding and a switched/routed (no MCU mixing) infrastructure in the cloud with variable transmission bandwidth that is not SVC based. This architecture delivers high video quality, relatively low core/cloud processing cost, low delay, and compatibility with the video acceleration hardware in Apple devices, now available through an API in iOS8 (note that the Highfive release with this acceleration is in Beta). In the Highfive system, a user merely creates a named meeting and it becomes a URL. Highfive uses the domain name of the customer company as the basis for these names, assuring that all company URLs are unique. So if I call my meeting "Phil," it is unique to my company, but there can be other Phil URLs. Perhaps we should start calling the URL for a web meeting the UML (Universal Meeting Locator), as this paradigm seems to be the new norm in communications. Send your friends a UML and you or they can join at will. In Highfive, a created UML can be sent to anyone and they can join using their device. The UML can be sent in an email, in a text, or can be a standing event. If you have a company account (based on your email having the right domain name for security), you go right into the meeting. If you are a guest, there is a notice to all in the meeting and anyone can admit you. Meetings are joined from virtually any device.

For PCs and Macs, a plug-in is added to the browser once (not a separate app), for Smart devices, an app has to be downloaded. As I said earlier, the Highfive room system never joins a meeting directly. The model is that a user joins the meeting using a device or PC and then "throws" the video stream to the room. This is a simple process. Each room has a Bluetooth, and Highfive uses Bluetooth, without pairing, for the signaling. The result is a simple and continuous transition from the device to the room. So, I start a video meeting on my device, and with a swipe, send it to the room, or with a swipe can bring it back and leave the room and continue the meeting. The room system never talks to the device other than the basic signaling of association; all of the video goes to the cloud. Highfive uses the same capability to send a projection display from the device to the room, or to the entire conference. This allows an easy use of the room system for display without a video conference.

Highfive image

Shan started the demo by showing how easy it is to install and use a Highfive system. There are three plugs: power, Ethernet and HDMI (wireless is in the unit, but not yet operational). After plugging in the unit into the monitor and placing on top using the bracket, the screen shows a number for identification. The unit has already connected to the cloud and now that number is used to give the unit a name, again within the domain name of the account holder. And that is it, the unit is configured and operational. Now you can do a video call and the unit will be available to take over the video in the room from your device. If there is more than one unit in Bluetooth range you get a named list to select the one you want to use. The key to the simplicity of the Highfive concept is in the lack of a remote and making the room system a peripheral to a user in the room. It is not a video conferencing system per see, it is a personal shared use peripheral. This concept, which may be more akin to Steve Jobs insisting on one button on the iPhone, is the key to simplicity. By eliminating the room system as a stand-alone device, Highfive has truly simplified video. While I did not have time to do an extended analysis, the video quality was good and seems to be true HD.

The key question is whether Highfive is something you should consider for your business. One significant point is that Highfive is a "closed" video system. It works with the Highfive room unit and virtually any PC, Mac or smart device, but does not have interoperability with traditional H.264 room systems. If you have a significant existing video investment in HD room systems, Highfive may not be a good solution, and cloud offers such as Blue Jeans or premise systems like Arcano may provide better interoperability. However, if you do not have video or only have a couple of room systems, it may be a very interesting option. As Shan said during our talk, most of their beta customers are 250-5,000 user companies that have some video investment, but do not see that as being the best long term system. Adding a Highfive to an existing room is only $799 and requires having a second HDMI port available on the monitor, so keeping the existing room system for specific use is an option as well.

This brings us to pricing. The Highfive room unit is $799, and the price of a user account is, as far as I can tell, free. As Highfive uses the domain name as the company registration, once a company has bought one unit and registered it to the company domain name, any employee in that company can get an account at the Highfive cloud and do video conferencing, with or without a room system. While Highfive has a future paid account option on their website, the current business model is that you buy one Highfive unit and can use the rest of the system for free, assumedly forever. While I assume that Highfive expects a ratio of employees to room units purchased, that does not seem to be a system purchase requirement. For a 500-person company with 20 conference rooms, a complete Highfive system can be purchased for a retail price of about $16K for the 20 room units, and everyone in that company domain name can use video for all of their meetings, with or without a room system involved. If we assume a three-year amortization of that investment, that works out to less than a dollar per month for video conferencing per employee. It is easy to see that the value of video should exceed that, especially as it can easily extend outside the company as well.

Is Highfive a viable video options for you? Compared to other options in the market, Highfive is simpler, but is somewhat closed and limited to general devices and the Highfive room unit. It will not integrate to existing room units and cannot be used to justify their purchase. It does not integrate to Skype or Lync, but works very well and is much simpler to use from what I have seen. It is not WebRTC, but it is close and Shan assured me that they have plans in that area. As all of the video streams go to the cloud, the bandwidth of your internet access will be important, but that is true with all cloud-based systems. Independent of your answers to these questions, Highfive has shown that video can be simple, useable, and that you do not need a remote for room system to work in a video conference. I suggest you at least check Highfive out when you have a chance.



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