Bonnie Cha

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PanaCast Videoconferencing System Shows Panorama Is Good for More Than Photos

If you’ve ever had to dial in to a videoconference for work, you know what a painful experience it can be. Staring at the backs of people’s heads and struggling to see presentation materials doesn’t make for a fun time. But one company is hoping to change that by thinking outside the box — literally.

Today, Altia Systems, a start-up based in Cupertino, Calif., introduced a new video camera called PanaCast. It takes videoconferencing beyond a stationary, rectangular screen by providing a real-time panoramic view of the room and giving users the ability to pan and zoom the scene from their computer or mobile device.

“We felt that if we could bring a new experience that is as simple as the normal human experience of talking in real time, it could be really powerful for users,” said Aurangzeb Khan, co-founder and CEO of Altia Sytems, in an interview with AllThingsD.

PanaCast uses a system of six cameras to capture HD video at 60 frames, and a custom-developed video processor that synchronizes and stitches all the images in real time to create a single, 200-degree panoramic view of the room. (PanaCast also runs the Linux operating system and features a dual-core ARM 11 processor.)

Altia’s server then uses a low-latency encoding process that allows you to stream the video over a cellular or Wi-Fi connection, unlike some videoconference systems that require dedicated bandwidth.

Remote participants can view video using the company’s Mac or Windows app or on their iPhone or Android devices. On mobile devices, you can use familiar touch gestures, such as pinch-to-zoom and swiping left or right, to zoom in on notes written on a whiteboard or to pan over to a speaker on the other side of the room.

“The experience you get with PanaCast is much more natural than current videoconferencing systems,” said Khan. “You get to interact with it in real time, and it makes a difference because you’re not a passive viewer anymore. You’re engaged in the discussion and how you want to participate in the discussion.”

I got a hands-on demo of the device last week (the company was originally scheduled to show PanaCast at our D: Dive into Mobile conference, which was postponed due to Hurricane Sandy), and I was actually surprised at what a difference the panoramic view made. It made for a better visual experience, and it was also helpful to see who was saying what, instead of hearing a faceless voice from one corner of the room.

Occasionally, I noticed some lag in the video, but the panning and zooming motions were very smooth, and worked well. One thing to note is that PanaCast does not have a built-in microphone.

Conference organizers will still need to use either a speakerphone or Polycom system. The PanaCast apps will have integrated VoIP audio, so participants can listen and talk using the app.

Altia says another benefit to its PanaCast system is cost. The company did not reveal exact pricing, but did say that it would be less than $700. Altia is launching PanaCast on Kickstarter, and the first 25 pledges of $399 will get a camera, with an estimated ship date of January.

The apps are free, and there is no subscription fee for up to two simultaneous remote participants. The company has a fundraising goal of $15,000 by Jan. 1.

Altia Systems was co-founded by Khan, CMO Lars Herlitz and CTO Atif Sarwari. The company has received $3 million in series A funding from Lanza TechVentures and private investors Dado and Rey Banatao.


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