This interview is part of VC Daily’s Future of Video Conferencing interview series, in which industry leaders tell us how they see video conferencing changing their industries, and where they see the technology going in the coming decade.
John Maier has extensive experience in the audio industry, and is president and CEO of Blue Microphones.
VC Daily: Let’s talk about the audio component of video conferencing, like static and feedback. These are problems that many 2-in-1 devices like webcams have. Do you think people who video conference regularly would see a difference in their experience if they communicated with a separate mic like your company makes?
Maier: In short, yes. Audio feels intangible, but if you break it down, when things aren’t working it’s usually the audio. It’s true that for video to work there has to be a certain level of quality, but audio is actually what makes or breaks communication.
When Skype came on the scene they automatically upped the game; instead of the audio having that narrow-bandwidth telephone sound, all of a sudden it was like someone was in the room with you. Now that there’s a higher standard for audio quality, it’s more common to be able to say to someone, “You need a better mic on your computer.” Changing the audio changes the expectation and the experience.
VC Daily: How do you see audio driving the video conferencing industry?
Maier: I think for many people there’s an ‘aha’ moment when they compare good video conferencing audio with telephone audio. People are saying, “Oh I’ve got to keep using Skype or whatever the platform is, because I just can’t go back to not understanding what people are saying over the phone.” At Blue, we actually used to use a phone for conference call audio for a while! We were like, “This is crazy, we’re an audio company!”
I think a lot of people are buying basic computers with built-in mics and they’re using those over and over again. That’s fine! That’s actually great for us, because eventually they’re going to say, “I need a better mic.” And as the sound quality of these built-in devices gets better, people realize what’s possible in audio, and they’ll start thinking about taking the next step up. We’re not trying to be the device on every laptop. We want the people at the bottom of the funnel who are ready for something really good.
VC Daily: Do you have any visions of what video conferencing might look like in the future?
Maier: I’m not sure I can say what ten years looks like, but what we’re doing here at Blue is really fun. More and more we’re getting really great talent at the company, but then people’s lives change and they have to move. For example, our head of PR is a superstar of the company and has done a really great job, but her family had to move. So we said, “OK, you can move but you can’t quit.” She’s live in the office on both video and audio all morning and into the afternoon–about five to six hours. You can pass by in the hall and see her and say hi, and the audio is good enough to allow hallway talk like that.
At Blue, we actually have a big fancy video conferencing system that everyone has to call into, and there are all these instructions for it. But it’s such a burden we usually just use Skype on our laptops! The future will be like that; video conferencing systems won’t be a frustration to use. We’ll simplify rather than complicate.
As video conferencing becomes more ubiquitous as a medium, it will open itself up to be improved in more ways. We have people who come into our office–DJs and gamers and people who stream homemade shows over the internet–and video conferencing and live streaming is how they communicate, it’s their medium. Demand from people like that is what’s going to drive video conferencing evolution.
VC Daily: What industries have you seen revolutionized by high-quality audio equipment?
Maier: The example I use is virtual music lessons. [The music publishing company] Hal Leonard Publishing now offers live chat and live video conferencing to connect music students with teachers. They actually approached us about a microphone so that teachers can help students better, because if you have a crappy mic you can’t tell if a student playing an instrument has good tone or not.
What if you could take a violin lesson from the first chair violinist in a famous symphony orchestra? There’s a company signing up world class musicians so that people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to can have a lesson with one of these world-class musicians. These are industries where it is critical to have excellent sound quality.
VC Daily: What do you think the biggest problem with video communication is today?
Maier: I see two sides to this question, and the first is ease of use. You need something that is as easy as calling a number on the phone so that anyone can do it. My mom is almost 80 and has an iPhone, but getting her to figure out a video call is almost impossible–you need something where you can just push a button and it works.
Part two is the idea of multiple parties. With a lot of the video conferencing services out there, you can’t do multi-party conference calls easily or you have to pay for them. I think things are moving in this direction–of being very easy to use and having free, high-quality multi-party calls, but we’re not there yet.
VC Daily: Do you feel a company like Google is in the best position to innovate on video communication, or should it be a hardware company? What type of company is in the best position to work on that?
Maier: My initial gut reaction is that it’s probably someone on the software side, and I say that because they’re the ones with the ability to innovate and find talent. And there’s the ability to make services cross-platform. Apple has done a good job with FaceTime, certainly, and here at Blue we’ve actually called people up and put the phone on the table and just FaceTimed for a meeting. But what I like about Skype is that it works across multiple types of platforms. Then, of course, Microsoft bought Skype, and I think that’s going to be what happens more and more often: the hardware companies are going to buy up the software companies and hopefully continue to innovate and to keep them cross-platform.
VC Daily: What, for you, was the moment when you realized that video communication could make a real impact on our culture? Can you think of any examples from your own life where you preferred the virtual experience to the in-person?
Maier: For me, I think it went from being a business epiphany to more of a personal one. In my business life, the moment was when I first Skyped back in the mid-2000s when I was working for a Danish company. I finally felt like I was having a real conversation with the person at the end of the line, as opposed to a phone conversation.
But what really sticks with me is when the technology transferred to my home life. A couple years after that ‘aha’ moment with Skype at work, my family set up Skype during a holiday–I can’t remember if it was Christmas or Thanksgiving–and we were on together for at least an hour, with the cousins showing the kids their presents and everyone giving their updates. We could have never had that experience without video conferencing. My mom isn’t crazy about the video part, because thinks she doesn’t look good on camera, but we still Skype with family, and that holiday was definitely the moment for me when I realized the impact video conferencing could have.