September 2007 | Volume 10 / Nuber 9
Case Study The Emergence of Video Telephony VRS!Snap and Ojo
By Erik K. Linask
It’s not going to wipe out voice-only communications, as the Buggles might have suggested in their music video, which helped launch MTV back in August of 1981, but video communications is gaining momentum at long last and will take its rightful place in the communications space. It just took some time and a boost from IP-based technology to bring the video quality to a new level.
As with any emerging technology, it will require time for widespread adoption - unless a company has the seemingly endless marketing resources Apple displayed in advance of its iPhone launch. Though it may not be growing as quickly as some other technologies, video telephony has a place in the future of communications, of that there is no doubt - more than 90 percent of communications is non-verbal, after all.
“Video telephony is clearly the next generation in telecommunications, in terms of completing the duality of telecommunications - where you have two-way data, two-way voice, but one-way video,” says WorldGate Communications chairman and CEO Hal Krisbergh.
Indeed, WorldGate has been among the pioneers of video telephony, having created its Ojo video phone - which, if you pay attention, can be seen on the CBS weekly drama NCIS, as well as FOX’s hit series 24. Exposure in nationally-broadcast programs can only increase awareness of video phones that are able to deliver on the promise of video telephony.
The problem historically, explains Krisbergh, is that prior video endpoints failed to deliver the kind of video quality and performance to which people have become accustomed. So, as the Ojo was developed, the question then became, who would be the early adopters - every technology has a group of initial users that ultimately help launch the product on a larger scale.
As WorldGate examined potential target markets - and certainly a case can be made for the enterprise customer or the college student - a different target emerged altogether. It was an audience that was surprising, yet obvious at the same time. It was also the one user group that would clearly benefit, perhaps more than any other single group from video telephony - the deaf and hard of hearing community.
“One market was acute in its need, and that was the deaf and hard of hearing community,” said Krisbergh. “When you think about it, it’s kind of obvious, because they can’t call on a [normal] telephone, something we take as a basic form of communication.”
Indeed, the deaf community immediately makes sense as a market for video telephony solution - but that only solves part of their problem. Certainly, with video endpoints, like the Ojo, at both ends of a call, hard of hearing callers could easily communicate with their friends and family and others fluent in signing. But other calls would still present issues.
Krisbergh explained that this is, in fact, an issue that Congress wrestled with many years ago, looking to facilitate means for hard of hearing consumers to communicate with the rest of society - typically that was accomplished inefficiently with a typewriter. More recently, however, a new technology has emerged, called Video Relay Service (VRS).
VRS, in essence, employs an interpreter that connects the deaf caller with any third party, communicating through signing with the former, and with voice with the latter, effectively translating the conversation for either side.
But while WorldGate had developed the Ojo phone, it does not have the means to support a VRS service on its own. However, Aequus Technologies does. Aequus provides technologies and technology related services to people with disabilities and the deaf community, and has a series of services and businesses specifically designed for those audiences. Snap!VRS, in fact, is an Aequus company that provides VRS services for the hearing impaired, and even in the earlier days of WorldGate, before the Ojo, was looking for ways to work with WorldGate to develop a solution.
So, as Founder and CEO of Aequus Richard Schatzberg explains, once Aequus heard about the Ojo, it was a natural extension of his company’s existing projects. Using the Ojo and Snap’s VRS technology, the two companies have partnered on a major push to bring enhanced IP-based communications capabilities to the hearing impaired community in the United States - a community that, according to Schatzberg, might be as large as one million potential users. The partnership with WorldGate, says Schatzberg, “is a major step up for folks in the deaf community in terms of the technology.”
With the partnership in place, the companies tested the service for nearly nine months, and have now officially gone live with the Ojo-based service. The first Ojos began shipping into the field in mid-July of this year.
The process is fairly straightforward, with the bulk of the calls initiated by deaf customers. According to Schatzberg, a user simply has to touch the SELECT button on the phone, which places a call to the Snap!VRS service center, where it is placed into a call queue, and is subsequently answered by the next available operator. The customer then provides the interpreter (operator) with the phone number of the third party he wants to reach, and the agent places the call to that third party using Snap’s call center infrastructure. The same agent then serves as the relay facility - thus the name Video Relay Service - for the call, translating voice to sign language for the deaf customer, and sign to voice for the hearing user.
While the hearing impaired customer requires an IP connection and Ojo phone to use the service, the leg of the call placed to the third party is sent through the PSTN and requires no IP connectivity nor a video endpoint. Of course, adds Schatzberg, if both parties have video endpoints, the two parties can communicate directly, bypassing the Snap!VRS facility.
An additional benefit for the deaf users, on top of now having the means to communicate with the global community at large, is that the service is subsidized for them. Certainly, providing adequate services for the disabled has long been a concern for the government, and by providing them a communications mechanism at no cost is part of that agenda. The only requirement for the deaf individual, explains Schatzberg, is he must have broadband access at the home or office, wherever he is using the Ojo phone.
“Other than that, there is no incremental cost,” he says. “We pay for the Ojo and we provide it to the customer, and we also pay all of the network fees.”
The Federal government subsidizes the use of the VRS service, but not the hardware (i.e., Ojo), but Schatzberg says the phones aren’t expensive, and he expects that as Snap!VRS adds users, it can build additional efficiencies into the system and build on its scale. Krisbergh says there are currently about 100,000 VRS users in the United States.
He also says the new service has generated significant excitement within the hearing impaired community and, along with Schatzberg, believes offering the service to this user group can only help increase the focus on video telephony services.
“All the people that will be using the phones will all have family or friends that will also be using it,” said Krisbergh. “It can provide a fascinating nucleus for network or viral marketing and give it a real start.”
The major problem with previous attempts at bringing video telephony services to market has been the quality of service and the poor reputation video services have - if you turned to the cable news networks for live coverage from Baghdad, for instance, you certainly experienced delays, synching issues, and jerkiness. But, while most services have failed to live up the promise of IP-based video telephony, Krisbergh says, “One thing I know is we have delivered on that promise,” quoting user surveys, which his company conducts on a monthly basis, claiming none of ten users say their service exceeds expectations.
Krisbergh further explains that WorldGate essentially rejected previous work on video endpoints and services, opting instead to expend the necessary resources on optimizing screen size and limiting packet loss over the Internet. He adds that, although WorldGate is a small company, it found a niche that most of the world gave little attention to, largely because the technology wasn’t yet available.
“Everyone was so focused on VoIP that they forgot about video telephony,” he says. “My vision of video telephony goes back 20 years. I just wasn’t able to do it because the technology just wasn’t there.”
He even remarked that, once the opportunity presented itself, and WorldGate was able to successfully develop its product, he, himself, was among the most stunned. “The most important thing we did was set criteria for the quality,” he says. “I must deliver high quality - if it doesn’t I don’t want to waste my time with it. It must give a sense of being there, a sense of comfort, a sense of really talking to the person.”
With the Ojo, he believes WorldGate has achieved its goal of being able to provide full motion video with no noticeable delay. He also is not surprised that the two firms are already enjoying the fruits of their labor, because it is a segment of the population that, by nature, places tremendous value on non-verbal communication, and he expects this project will prove to be merely the tip of the iceberg, that video telephony will receive a major push from it.
WorldGate, in fact, is working with BT, New Zealand Telecom, and others on project abroad, but even in the United States, according to Schatzberg, the Snap!VRS service is beginning to reach new heights, with both government agencies and larger businesses expressing interest.
Snap Telecom is currently involved with a number of state agencies on projects, including the State of
Georgia, where it has placed Ojo phones in the state’s Regional Vocational Rehabilitation offices throughout the state, so that deaf customers can make VRS calls from those offices. In addition, the facilities have access to a VRI service, which differs from VRS in that both parties are in
the same physical location, but they use the Snap!VRS interpreter in lieu of having an outside interpreter come to the office. (VRI is not federally funded.) Schatzberg says he also has received calls from several Federal agencies that are interested in its services.
The Ojo has been designed to easily work within the confines of corporate IT infrastructures, which also makes it an ideal opportunity for businesses looking to enable members of the deaf community more easily integrate into work environments, which is a benefit to the hard of hearing community, the businesses, as well as the nation as a whole.
In fact, Snap!VRS has already been contacted by many corporations looking to deploy Ojo hardware for their deaf employees, ranging from Fortune 100 businesses in technology, pharmaceutical, and other industries, to very small consulting and service oriented companies, says Schatzberg. While he hasn’t noticed a trend in terms of the types of businesses, he adds he has been “pleasantly surprised at the number of larger companies that have looked favorably upon the technology.”
Many of these companies have diversity initiatives in place and are looking to hire an increasing number of deaf or hard of hearing employees.
The Ojo/Snap!VRS combination makes it considerably easier to accomplish that, as it creates a substantially enhanced work environment for those employees. While some of these
installations are on-offs, the company is currently looking at one installation of nearly 50 phones and another of more than a dozen.
Much of the interest is a result of a general awareness of the Ojo. Snap!VRS has a presence at many community and industry meetings and conferences focused on the deaf community. Also, as people begin to use the service at home, they increasingly become aware of its business applications as well. All of this, explains Schatzberg, has created an influx of online applications as well as calls from businesses looking for ways to better serve their hard of hearing and deaf employees.
Clearly, the consumer and business applications of the Snap!VRS service provide much needed assistance to the community it targets, providing deaf individuals with an enriched communications experience they have not previously enjoyed. But, there is an even more wide-reaching industry trend that can develop from it as well - the video call center.
While the deaf community are the early adopters, the technology can easily be extended to any business in any industry.
“It just so happens that we’re currently servicing the early adopter community, but this same infrastructure can be leveraged to provide similar services to the non-deaf population,” says Schatzberg.
The Snap!VRS call center, in fact, is no different from any other call center, other than having video phones for each agent. The network infrastructure has been specifically designed for maximum video call volume, and, according to Schatzberg, there has been no degradation of video quality at peak call volumes.
Certainly, as the video telephony industry grows, the Snap!VRS infrastructure will become a model for call centers worldwide. The benefits of such deployments will extend far beyond simply enabling face-to-face communication. Anyone that has ever had cause to call a customer service center has likely questioned the professionalism of an agent at one time or another. Undoubtedly, the addition of video communication will have a profound impact on the level of professionalism and, consequently, problem resolution.
For now, despite its growth, the service is still in its infancy. But the benefits for government, enterprise, and call center deployments - for both the deaf and the hearing communities - have the potential to produce a growth curve far steeper than Krisbergh or Schatzberg can imagine.
This is a very powerful technology that we believe will have an enormously positive impact,” concludes Schatzberg. “WorldGate has proven its ability to engineer high-level solutions, and we look forward to a very long-term and mutually beneficial relationship.”
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