SightSpeed – Focusing on Personal Video Services

Since its introduction at the final Fall Comdex in 2003, I have been following the SightSpeed video communications service as it has evolved into one of the more highly respected personal video calling services. Today they are releasing a new version 5.0; last week I spent an hour talking with Peter Csathey, CEO of SightSpeed, about SightSpeed, its direction and their forthcoming new version.

Peter, who has been CEO since last December, has SightSpeed focused on offering “best-in-class” personal video services. These services are envisioned to come in the form of

  • Communications: private, secure video and voice calling communications;
  • Community/Content with the introduction of a public directory, video blogging and other user generated content and SightSpeedTV
  • Commerce: video-enabled e-commerce, video mail marketing; “click-to-call” video sales and support.

Previous versions of SightSpeed, a cross-platform service running on both Macs and Windows PC’s, have included video calling (with up to four in a conference), video mail messaging, video blogging support, chat and, recently, a beta outbound PSTN service. SightSpeed operates using direct (node-free) peer-to-peer connectivity for 1:1 video and audio calls. Multi-party video conferencing with its additional processing demands passes through a server.

SightSpeed 5.0 fleshes out what Peter calls “a complete personal video services suite”, offering several new capabilities;

  • New video codec for sharper, crisper video in both 1:1 calls and n:1 (where N<=4) video conferences
  • Over 90% dual firewall negotiation (no relays)
  • A free PC to PC voice-only calling service (independent from the video service)
  • Enhanced Mac support and adoption; their goal is to make the Mac experience be on par with the PC experience.
  • Extends video blogging to two minute recording time.
  • The outbound PSTN service will come out of beta; they will be adding inbound PSTN calling with DID numbers.
  • Usability improvements
  • My SightSpeed “click-to-call” buttons launching SightSpeed directly from a website.
  • First beta release of SightSpeedTV; allowing viewing of analog TV channels, sourced from a Windows Media PC or TV tuner/video capture card.

One interesting feature of SightSpeed is its ability to adjust to “local user” network conditions. Normally video requires about 384 kbps bandwidth for a clear picture; however, if it determines the local user’s situation has degraded it automatically switches to a protocol that works down to 128 kbps. The picture quality degrades slightly in this situation but a viable video and voice conversation can continue; the user does get notification of the change.

SightSpeedTV in its current state is limited to handling live, analog channels; it includes a simple remote control for stepping up and down channels. It is anticipated that it will support digital TV and PVR devices in future releases associated with the release of Windows Vista.

Our discussion then turned to marketing and building a user base. SightSpeed is relying on viral marketing and market partner agreements to build awareness leading to direct sales. In order to encourage experience with their services, the Basic Plan which includes unlimited two party video and voice calling and unlimited 30 second video mail messages is free.

Winning several awards has facilitated the viral aspect; channel partners include hardware vendors (Creative Labs webcams), software vendors (Sonic Roxio) and cable partners such as Telewest and the U.K.’s Virgin Mobile. And, of course, the viral Mac community makes sure that awareness of SightSpeed is generated amongst Mac owners.

I asked Peter if he had any concern about regulatory issues. SightSpeed is tracking the regulatory environment closely; at the moment they are doing the same as Skype in stating they are “not a telephony replacement service and cannot be used to dial 911 or other emergency phone numbers”.

While Skype has had a lot of “regulatory visibility” since it is primarily a voice communications service, it is interesting to note that, since SightSpeed’s primary focus is on video, their entry into Internet voice calling has gone “below the radar” with respect to regulatory issues. SightSpeed’s use of VoIP-based services as an additional feature for its primary service is an ideal example of voice communication serving as an accessory application to another service and not a “phone system replacement”.

I closed out my interview by asking Peter about future developments for SightSpeed. Beyond the evolution of SightSpeedTV to support PVR’s and digital cable boxes, the most demanded feature is a session recording capability. And some day they hope to offer a SightSpeed client running on mobile devices such as Windows Mobile and Blackberries.

How good is SightSpeed’s video? Here’s a new (somewhat subjective) test for video quality. Yesterday, to check out Mac performance, I had my daughter install SightSpeed on her MacBook Pro (in a remote city); towards the end of our session she asked to see our dog. While positioning the dog so he could be seen by my webcam, the dog saw her on my laptop screen and tore off into the next room (behind the screen) where my wife reported that he was somewhat agitated and looking around the room for several minutes. Best we can figure out is that he was looking for our daughter, having seen her on the screen. (He does generate a lot of noise whenever he sees animals on our regular TV.)

From a more practical viewpoint, the video quality coming from the MacBook again was crisp with well defined images. My other test is to try it out full screen on my 1650 x 1080 screen; again while not quite as crisp it was certainly viewable without any problems.

Since its launch three years ago SightSpeed has set the bar for video-over-the-net performance; until the actual 5.0 release this evening we cannot do a full comparison with Skype’s video on Windows platforms. Being cross-platform, it has attracted a significant base of Mac users; Skype just yesterday released a “preview” (“it’s definitely not at beta stage yet”?) release of Skype for Mac that incorporates video.

The launch of SightSpeedTV introduces a new element into the place-shifting game. SlingBox uses a dedicated hardware platform that sits between the TV and cable box and/or PVR to bring personalized cable video to the Internet. SightSpeedTV relies on Windows applications to act as the source from a multi-tasking Windows Media Center PC or TV-tuner equipped Windows platform. In its current configuration SlingBox works with digital cable boxes and PVR’s providing access to a wider range of programming (in my case NHL Center Ice and MLB Extra Innings, for instance); also SlingBox allows the remote setting of PVR recording setups. Finally SlingBox provides a full emulation of my specific model of Scientific Atlanta remote control. SightSpeedTV is a “nice-to-have” accessory if you have the appropriate hardware but SightSpeed primarily excels with personal video services and user generated content.

Jeff Pulver refers to 2006 as the Year of Video on the Net; he’s even added a second VON show, Video on the Net, to be held at the same time as the Fall VON show in Boston. Skype and SightSpeed will be two of the major players in the personal video communications services space; we are entering interesting times as we watch the evolution of this space. In the meantime, let the SightSpeed Guy have his say.

About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years’ experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.

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