Massachusetts-based Vivox delivers voice chat to more than 16 million users, including those on its Vivox Voice on Facebook application—as well as in games from Second Life to Command & Conquer 4, using Polycom’s http://www.polycom.com/ high definition, royalty-free Siren 14 (G 722.1C) voice codec.
Polycom co-founder and CTO Jeff Rodman says the codec was initially developed to meet the needs of global business users. “It makes communications much clearer, it makes mistakes much less frequent, it’s a lot easier to identify who it is that’s talking at the other end—and as businesses are going global, certainly, it becomes a major advantage to be able to clearly hear who’s at the other end,” he says.
To encourage usage, Polycom offers Siren 14 under a royalty-free license agreement. “We really feel that the more that people have the opportunity to use this, the more they’ll realize how important clear communications are,” Rodman says. “Polycom’s business is in developing the systems and the hardware that people use to communicate… and we realized that our interests and those of our users and the industry in general were best served by us making this available royalty-free.”
Vivox, Rodman says, has taken full advantage of that offering. “Vivox is an excellent example of a licensee who has taken the normal license from Polycom for the Siren 14 codec and leveraged it into a strong benefit in their business—there’s no more depth in their contract with Polycom than any other licensee would be able to get,” he says.
Jim Toga, co-founder and vice president of engineering at Vivox, says the fact that the codec is royalty-free has made a huge difference for his company. “To operate in a Web scale, with Web economics, is very hard to do with a heavily licensed codec… the costs can be onerous, certainly for a startup,” he says.
Siren 14, Toga says, has enabled Vivox to provide high definition 3D audio for virtual worlds like Second Life. “What people are seeing with their eyes is truly represented by what they hear with their ears,” he says. “It’s much easier to fool your eyes than your ears, and… visual distance needs to be mimicked very clearly in your ears to make the experience both compelling and, frankly, useful.”
Beyond virtual worlds, Toga says, Vivox serves a wide range of online gaming experiences, including both person-to-person and group interaction, as a vast improvement over text chat. “[Text] takes away from the game in some contexts—particularly in a first-person shooter… where, if you’re spending time communicating with somebody, you’re likely to die,” he says. “Flapping your lips is a lot better than moving your fingers on a keyboard to say, ‘Watch out!’ or to coordinate.”
And that’s true, Toga says, for every kind of gaming experience. “Whether it’s a fantasy game or a tactical element to coordinate a battle… there’s a true advantage to being able to communicate in real time, very succinctly and very clearly—and voice is first among equals to accomplish that,” he says. “There’s a real need and a reward for getting ubiquitous, high quality, easy to use voice woven into these environments.”
Lately, Toga says, the gaming and social networking worlds have started to meld. “[Gaming] Web sites have community organizations that are operating outside of the game but are still very well connected into and are an outgrowth of the gaming environment—and on the other side, the social networks are making much of their activity and, frankly, revenue off of games… so both are moving to the center: The gaming guys are adding social networking aspects, and the social networking sites are adding gaming,” he says.
That’s what led, almost inevitably, to the Vivox Voice on Facebook application, which was launched in September of this year. “You look around and you say, ‘What are the big communities that are on the Internet today that could be enhanced by providing voice?” Toga says. “And clearly Facebook and many other sites rise fairly obviously to the top.”
The application, which is still in beta, is starting to prompt new types of interaction on Facebook. “It’s very exciting for us to watch how people are trying to use it… anything from high school spontaneous reunions to Bible study groups,” Toga says. “And I think, over time, we’ll see the set of tools you need to make those happen will grow—both from us and outside of us.”