VoIP Service for Gamers Scales to 7,000 Players

Developers and providers of telephony software talk all the time about “changing the voice paradigm”—to the point where the expression “cheap minutes” has become almost a pejorative term.

Another such organization—Blabbelon—launched its new service yesterday, but this may turn out to be the real thing.

In a nutshell, Blabbelon is a Web-based communications portal where, once registered (simple and free), users can establish and manage “Blabs” or conversation rooms where any other registered user can visit and carry on a conversation, using a simple push-to-talk hotkey on their computer keyboard (assigned upon registration) to “grab the floor” and talk.

One of the many unusual things about this new service—and there are many—is that it uses Skype’s (relatively) new SILK codec, a proprietary coder-decoder that reproduces a substantially wider sound spectrum even than HD voice as it’s currently being implemented in sophisticated IP telephony—at a fraction of the usual VoIP bandwidth requirement.

Use of the SILK codec is one of the factors that allow Blabbelon to scale up to 7,000 simultaneous users in a single session. The other factors are the proprietary back- and front-end server technologies developed by Blabbelon, under the guidance of Dean Elwood, the company’s chief technology strategist.

“We steered away from standards-based stuff,” Elwood told Enterprise VoIPplanet. “Where one of the core requirements was to be highly scalable, many standards-based protocols, such as SIP and IAX, are actually too wordy, verbose, and a bit network heavy. So we’ve trimmed down the way that we get Blabbelon working to give us the most efficient distribution and protocol mechanisms that we can achieve—which gives us very high scalability.”

The ultimate objective of this scalability was to keep the cost of servers low, Elwood explained. CEO Ed Ikeguchi rounded out the picture of the company’s design goals:

“At its core, what we really wanted to provide people was a service that was online—so no downloads—that runs on a Mac or a PC,” he told VoIPplanet. “We wanted to provide voice quality that was a lot better than what they currently had, and we wanted to do so in a way that would make business sense for us. In other words, it had to scale properly so we could provide it to users at a reasonable cost, if not actually free.”

As mentioned, the initial user target for the Blabbelon service will be users of massively multiuser online games (MMOGs). “I was fascinated by some of these new gaming systems that rely heavily on group play—the social element—that are really pulling people together,” Ikeguchi said, by way of explaining the genesis of the technology. “For example, there’s a game now called World of Warcraft. It’s unbelievable . . . there are 11 million people playing this, and they need to talk to each other.”

“Games aside, what caught my interest was in this whole social dimension and the communications that was necessary to do what you really want to do. That’s what gives these games their stickiness for pulling people back into a game—the social dimension.

“I was really fascinated by the fact that every evening now, there’s millions of people who log into voice servers all over the world, to see if they can communicate with [other characters and groups within these games], and they’re going off to beat up dragons and stuff like that. But the tools that they’re using are pretty elementary,” Ikeguchi elaborated.

Current audio solutions for gamers involve a patchwork of workarounds using heavy client software downloads and hosting services. “The software hasn’t been updated in ages,” Ikeguchi explained. “It’s really techie and cumbersome to download these heavy client things. I thought, Maybe it’s an opportunity to see if we could modernize this with an online, Web-based approach, [5:17] and at the same time making some improvements around voice quality. And that’s what we’ve managed to achieve.”

To become a Blabbelon user, you go to the website and enter your e-mail address into the registration field and click the button that says SIGN UP. Your address becomes your login, and the system e-mails you a confirmation containing your password.

As mentioned above, once logged in, you can create “Blabs,” manage them, enter contacts, invite others into your Blab, and update your profile. You are automatically given a keyboard hotkey (right-hand Ctrl. seems to be the default). Once you’re in a Blab, you just tap that key and talk; your fellow Blab inhabitants can do the same. Your words go out to everyone who is participating (up to a limit of about 7,000, of course).

Incidentally, once you’ve launched a Blab, you can move to other Web pages—most likely—but not limited to—your MMOG, or any other application. The only active user interface is, of course, the hotkey.

We registered but did not have a chance to try the technology. However, some of Dean Elwood’s remarks about “audio UI” features with which they’re experimenting make us eager to do so.

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