Vivox, Bringer of Voice to Virtual Worlds, Strikes Major Deal with Electronic Arts

For a long time, Second Life was stuck in the cyber equivalent of the silent-movie era: people communicated by typing, and their words showed up in little thought bubbles above their avatars’ heads. All of that changed drastically around 2007, when Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, hired an obscure outfit called Vivox to equip its 3-D virtual world with a voice communication system. Now any Second Life citizen who has a headset connected to their computer can simply speak, and everyone whose avatar is standing nearby will hear them in living stereo.

For the Gloria Swansons of Second Life, like myself, the changeover from typing to talking was a bit traumatic—and indeed, 20 percent of Second Life citizens still abstain from voice communication. But the other 80 percent gab for a billion minutes every month, which is a rather convincing demonstration that most people inside 3-D computer environments prefer talking to texting.

And now Vivox, a four-year-old startup based in Natick, MA, is about to introduce its technology to three new communities that could vastly increase its user base. The company announced this morning that it has formed a partnership with Redwood City, CA-based Electronic Arts (NASDAQ: ERTS), the world’s largest entertainment software company, to add its voice services to several online EA games. First up is Command & Conquer 4, a continuation of EA’s hugely popular real-time strategy game that’s expected to launch early next year.

Second Life avatars converse using VivoxAt the same time, Vivox is announcing the launch of Vivox Labs, an incubator-within-a-startup where the company is trying out different ways of delivering its voice services over the Web. And the first two Vivox Labs experiments are aimed at big targets: Facebook, where the lab’s “Vivox Web Voice for Facebook” application will allow members to invite their friends to instant Web voice conferences; and World of Warcraft subscribers, who will be able to use a new Vivox-powered website called Puggable to assemble teams of players for in-world campaigns. Both the Facebook and Puggable applications are in private beta testing and are expected to go public by January.

“We started the company about four years ago with the goal of making voice a seamless, natural part of every online experience,” Vivox co-founder and CEO Rob Seaver told me when I visited the company last week. “Our view at the time was that more and more human interaction would take place online, and the richest form of communication we have is talking to each other. So we thought there would be an opportunity to turn the Web from this silent, barren place into one filled with the warm sounds of human voices.”

That’s exactly what could happen if even more gaming, virtual-world, and social networking communities turn to Vivox’s services. Not bad for a company that started out as a wacky idea from Jeff Pulver, the founder of the company that became Internet phone service provider Vonage.

You’ve probably heard of Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP; it’s the technology behind Vonage and Skype, and the one that has turned the telecom industry upside down by transforming phone calls into digital data packets and routing them over the open Internet. Vivox’s system works on similar principles, except that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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