Emtech 2011: Big Boy FiOS, videoconferencing everywhere and lots of fresh ideas

Emtech 2011: Big Boy FiOS, videoconferencing everywhere and lots of fresh ideas

Technology Review's annual Emtech event at MIT always bursts with fresh-faced innovators awkwardly touting their world-changing breakthroughs. However, the 2011 event held this week at the new MIT Media Lab also includes plenty of established companies, from Google and IBM to Verizon and Polycom, promoting lots of new ideas backed by their significant financial and human resources.

BACKGROUND: MIT opens new Media Lab complex 

I started off my day at Emtech by meeting with Jeff Rodman, co-founder and chief evangelist for Polycom, the conferencing and unified communications company that has been on a financial roll and using a chunk of that change to snap up companies (including web conferencing company ViVu this week) and technology assets to expand its reach. The last time Network World had an extensive conversation with Rodman, in early 2009, the topic was mainly HD voice - a topic that has somewhat taken a backseat to HD video given some of the latest advances on that front, although he says the incremental cost of including HD voice in handsets these days means it is well on its way to wider adoption.

Rodman had to tiptoe around some subjects on Tuesday because Polycom - which now boasts nearly a $4 billion market cap -- is announcing its quarterly results late Wednesday. But Rodman was able to shed light on some of the Polycom's direction. The company's big push right now is technology called RealPresence Mobile that enables videoconferencing to extend from big room systems to tablets, initially the Apple iPad, Motorola Xoom and Samsung Galaxy Tab.

RealPresence Mobile fits with an overall evolution of Polycom's focus from hardware to what Rodman calls "a software-centric view of the world" (though he says software has also been a key differentiator for the company). Software is what enables Polycom to deliver a consistent platform for presence that works across devices and apps.

Asked about whether it might also open the company's customers up to new security threats, Rodman said Polycom puts significant R&D investment into security, in part because the federal government is a big customer. Though he coyly declined to say whether the company might have a big security-related announcement in the works. He said security is built into the platform via root-level interfaces and that endpoints communicate with the platform and each other using standards like SIP and H.323. "Security is always a valid question though," Rodman said.

Other Polycom R&D investment is going into areas such as expanding mobile platforms that RealPresence will work with, though Rodman didn't indicate that Cisco's Cius business tablet would necessarily be high on the list (he referred to the device as a "misstep" by Cisco). Rodman said even though they are competitors, Polycom and Cisco have a good working relationship and sit side by side in standards outfits like the ITU and IETF.

Polycom is also investing in immersive telepresence systems, including the Halo technology it bought from HP (as part of that deal Polycom's apps were to be made available on HP's webOS, but that might be another story now that the mobile OS is being phased out ).

FiOS for business

Among the other companies Polycom partners with is Verizon, which was represented at Emtech by Shadman Zafar, the carrier's "futurist" and senior vice president for rapid product development. He gave a talk on the future of TV, which brought us to the subject of FiOS (Zafar showed off a new Android app dubbed My FiOS that gives customers remote control of their TVs as well as photo sharing and other media access capabilities).

While it's widely been reported that Verizon has more or less put the brakes on residential FiOS build-outs while it seeks to sway more customers to jump onto those networks and to convince new and old customers to pay for new services such as home automation, Zafar said the company is making a renewed push for FiOS in the enterprise. (We wrote about such services as far back as 2008.) Such offerings wouldn't stress the TV services promoted in Verizon's residential offerings, but would give businesses a potentially much cheaper alternative to T-1s, ATM, Ethernet or other links for data services, a multibillion business for Verizon. "We're actively pursuing this right now," Zafar says.

Such installations might cut into Verizon's revenue in the near term, but would cut its costs and open up new business opportunities for the carrier based on new services it could offer over the fiber pipes, said Zafar, who heads up a group of some 2,000 employees, many in R&D. "When big cost reduction happens, great growth happens," he said.

Circling back to videoconferencing, Zafar says consumer videoconferencing is now at about the stage it was at for enterprises a few years back. But Zafar, who takes part in telepresence conferences almost every day, is optimistic that it will catch on soon as video, and importantly audio, improvements become standard and 4G wireless becomes ubiquitous.

Fresh ideas

While the big companies have lots going on, MIT's Andrew McAfee reminded attendees not to think that innovation still comes strictly from Bell Labs-like outfits. McAfee, who is principal research scientist at the MIT Center for Digital Business, oozed optimism about the future, pointing to Apple's App Store as an example of soliciting fresh innovation from the masses, regardless of what kind of degree you hold.

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I got a peek at some of MIT's young innovators during a tour of its Media Lab, which houses and is largely funded through donations from big corporate "members." The lab hosts 25 groups working on advances in areas as diverse as Camera Culture, Biomechanics, Opera of the Future and Personal Robots. The six-floor building that opened last year features many glass walls and open spaces designed as a "safe zone" for multidisciplinary interaction, said Joi Ito, who directs the lab. He said the lab emphasizes that students learn in large part by building prototypes of their ideas since doing so can help break down barriers between different disciplines.

That approach seems to sit well with Google. A brief talk by Kristen Morissey of Google's new business development group wound up with a Q&A during which one student asked how to go about approaching Google with ideas. Morissey replied that "we have plenty of ideas" already - what Google needs are prototypes of new products and plans for businesses that can scale.

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