Personify Explores a New Dimension in Collaboration

Think about the worst part of the last online webinar you attended. Was it all those faceless slides?  Thought so.

And so did Sanjay Patel, CEO of Personify. Since 2009, he's been working on a way to enhance collaborative communications like webinars, chats and hangouts by adding depth-sensing, 3D cameras.

For most people, the mere mention of 3D conjures up visions of space monsters reaching out for them in a darkened movie theater. That's not what we're talking about here.

Creating a Personal Presence

Patel is applying the 3D on the "input side" of the equation. Personify Live, the company's only product right now, uses a self-facing camera to capture the presenter's image and superimpose it right onto the presentation in a webinar without also projecting any of the background. 

Think of the weather person on the local news, who is actually standing in front of a blank green screen while pointing to the oncoming storm system on a map that isn't even there. Personify's service does something similar, without the need for the green screen or additional infrastructure. You just need a small camera attached to the top of your display screen.

So far, more than 300 companies have ordered the service, including SAP, Oracle, Accenture, Deloitte, BP and other large corporations. They use it for in-house training and marketing, but mostly to enliven sales presentations.

"If you're trying to sell software and you're doing it over WebEx, you put yourself front and center on WebEx," said Patel in an interview with CMSWire. "Your pitch is much more engaging, almost making eye contact. That is not possible without what we're doing. You just can do it compellingly."

Competitive Landscape

The cost is low compared to higher end teleconference solutions, like Cisco's TelePresence. But Patel thinks his biggest competition -- and greatest opportunity -- lies with free and low-end services like Google Hangouts and Microsoft's Lync.

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The absence of a presenter is, perhaps, the greatest difference between watching a PowerPoint presentation in a conference room and watching one online. That human presence keeps people from getting bored by looking at slide over slide, but it also conveys subtle cues to the audience.

"When I use this thing, I find myself nodding," said Patel. "Nodding doesn't interrupt anything. It doesn't interrupt the flow. Now I know the other side just saw something relevant and to keep talking. These visual cues are really important."

The 3D Era Awaits

Personify isn't the only company interested in depth-sensing cameras. Both Samsung and Amazon have built them into their phones, and Microsoft used Kinect cameras with the Xbox, effectively allowing players to turn their bodies into game controllers.

"This is the part of 3D that Personify has specialized in," said Patel, who holds a doctorate in electrical engineering and teaches at the University of Illinois. "Frankly, it's the part of 3D that Amazon is investing in, that Google is investing in, that Apple is investing in. 3D on the input side is what we're talking about."

Patel's work on this began as a research project with his students as they explored how to use 3D technology to improve the way people interact in web conferencing, chat and "all those tools in which people collaborate on video."

Privately held Personify started with angel investments, but has drawn the interest of a cluster of high-profile VC funds. Intel Capital, Liberty Global, Serra Ventures, Illinois Ventures and AMD Ventures participated in its Series A round. The company currently has 32 employees based in its Chicago headquarters and a field office in Ho Chi Minh City.

Smaller + Cheaper = Ubiquitous


Perhaps the most intriguing part of Personify's mission is what lies ahead in 3D camera technology. It currently sells a $199 3D camera the size of a deskphone's receiver that the presenter uses to address the audience while presenting documents or slides. That is just the first step.

Patel showed us a four-lens camera the size of Washington's face on a US quarter. The price for that? Only about $5. He expects those cheaper devices to be built into almost all mobile devices and laptops in the near future, opening up all sorts of new possibilities.

In the short term, Personify is working on a multi-presenter version of its software that should be out later this year. That may be a big leap for Personify, but still a small step for 3D-kind.

Down the road, if everyone has depth-sensing devices on their displays, it could be possible to either physically watch the audience as one would in a live presentation or simply to analyze data from their movements in real time, providing feedback to the speaker. Are they nodding? Are they dozing off? Are they leaving?

"That," said Patel, "is coming like a steam engine."