How Altia Systems' acquisition could drive a meeting space revolution
Anna Mitchell caught up with Aurangzeb Khan the founder of Panacast developer Altia Systems just after news of its acquisition by Jabra owner GN Audio
“When you build a new company, you place a bet on where the world is going to go, and you try and get there early,” says Aurangzeb Khan, the founder, president and CEO of Silicon Valley startup Altia Systems, the developer of Panacast video cameras.
Last month that bet paid off when GN Audio, owner of Jabra and BlueParrot brands, bought Panacast in a deal worth $125 million (approximately €110 million). But what was it that Khan - as well as his colleagues and investors at Altia Systems - Saw about where the world was headed, and how did they go about meeting that need?
Part of the answer lies in huddle rooms, an area that Khan predicted huge growth in back when the company carried out its first round of fundraising in 2012.
“Working with people in remote locations is now routine,” answers Khan. “The millennial generation is very comfortable with video and using content sharing with video and audio to build a cohesive team experience.
Good video creates trust and increases business velocity.
Also, as businesses evolve people are increasingly working in open spaces. Companies are creating large numbers of small collaboration spaces, or even just lounging areas with couches and sofas.”
He also saw that camera technology wasn’t moving forward when it came to improving the field of visual experience. According to Khan that’s important because humans see almost 180 degrees.
“And when we focus on people, we look at them, but we’re also aware of peripheral information,” he adds.
“We read a room and we use visual information to decide what to say, when to say it and how to say it.”
“For many years cameras were only good at delivering a 70 to 80-degree field of vision,” he continues. “Any wider and you get distortion and artefacts. Previous attempts to solve this used ultra-wide-angle or fisheye lenses and you get a fishbowl effect.”
The clever thing about Panacast was it solved the problem using a multicamera array and inventing a host of algorithms and implementing them into a processor.
The result was an image that looked like it came from a single camera with an extended field of view.
Khan goes into more detail: “We have three adjacent cameras overlapped by about 20%. We synchronize, stitch and optimise the video streams from the three cameras in real time, to create a single continuous 180-degree field of view.
[We also use] new algorithms we've developed which dynamically stitch the video from adjacent cameras with ultra-low latency and run in the PanaCast Vision Processor inside the device.
This is computationally intensive, we run about 300 million pixels per second of calculations inside the device.
There are nine processors, two microphones and an audio DSP. It’s complex but to the user it’s presented as a simple plug and play device.”
Altia System’s bet was that this type of camera technology was sorely needed in the burgeoning huddle rooms market where plug and play technology was vital and groups of people typically sat close to the camera, therefore requiring a wider field of view.
“You can sit close to high quality TVs and get a good visual experience,” says Khan. “
Typically people mount a TV on the wall, push a table underneath it, arrange five or six chairs around that table. With other devices you’ll lose the front two chairs near the screen.”
The loss of two seats equates to money once you’ve considered wasted real estate costs, points out Khan.
Panacast helps effective use of real estate in another way. The cameras can be used as data sensors.
First this was applied as an intelligent zoom function. If someone leaves a meeting, the camera adjusts to centre the remaining participants, or it widens as people join.
“There’s no remote control, you don’t have to wait for the camera to manoeuvre,” adds Khan.
Altia Systems also released a free API. Panacast can now be used as a data sensor for any number of applications, a common one being room occupancy checks.
If meetings don’t happen, Panacast can report that no one has showed up and the room can be freed up in shared calendars and room booking systems.
Patterns of use can be recorded and used to inform future investment decisions. In hot desking scenarios, you can see if desks are free.
“We’ve taken open source algorithms that are trained to detect everyday objects like tables and chairs to offer very practical information,” says Khan.
“If chairs are removed from a room for another meeting, the camera can provide an alert so they are replaced before the next meeting.”
In a press release detailing the acquisition of Alitia Systems, GN Audio said it wanted to use the addition of video products to its audio capabilities to help it push further into small collaboration spaces and huddle rooms.
That’s interesting because, while all the development was going on to create Panacast cameras, GN Audio was busy inventing a whole host of technology for intelligent audio.
“You can imagine so many powerful ways to combine intelligent vision with intelligent audio to autonomously improve a person’s experience or a group’s experience,” says Khan.
“There’s a great connection between the companies. GN Audio has a huge global reach, huge global sales force and a deep set of capabilities in production. We’re your classic Silicon Valley startup, making sure we build highly differentiated products. But importantly there’s a good cultural fit.”
Khan confirms that products combining technical expertise from Altia Systems and GN Audio will be released to the market in the future.
It’s too early to be drawn on what brand name those products will be released under but –for now –the Panacast name isn’t going anywhere.