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

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it’s designed to connect people in many-to-many rather than one-to-one conversations. Pulver’s idea was to build an Internet voice service that would interface with existing software environments and online communities.

And that’s what Vivox now does, serving a collective 11 million members of worlds like CCP’s Eve Online and Sony Online Entertainment’s EverQuest and Star Wars Galaxies properties. (For comparison, that 11 million is about the same as the number of Skype users who are online at any given moment.)

Seaver’s description of Vivox is a bit more modest. “We took some things [Pulver] had been working on and playing around with and turned them into the company,” he says. Pulver is still the company’s chairman, though he’s not involved in day-to-day operations.

To finance all that play, the 33-employee company has raised two chunks of venture capital, a $6 million Series A round in 2005 led by Canaan Partners and GrandBanks Capital, and a $7.8 million Series B round in 2007 led by Benchmark Partners. The Electronic Arts deal could turn into its biggest gain yet. EA has sold more than 30 million copies of the Command & Conquer games, in which military factions vie for control of territory and resources—but the coming installment, subtitled Tiberian Twilight, will be the first in which players can talk to each other within the game, without having to kludge together separate Web or telephone conferences.

Vivox Web Voice for Facebook“Online games are fast-paced social experiences where voice chat is an essential element of user interaction,” Nanea Reeves, senior vice president of EA’s Online Group, said in a news release about the EA-Vivox deal today. “With Vivox, we are providing our players an incredibly rich communications experience that combines the fun of an old time LAN party in the new age of online games.”

Vivox voice connections will also be available to C&C users from the game’s website, meaning players will be able to talk remotely even when they’re not playing. “Say you have to find a group to play against tonight,” says Monty Sharma, Vivox’s co-founder and vice president of product management and marketing. “Maybe you’ve got a clan of 30 people, but you need to find out who’s on tonight and what wants to run what scenario. All of that stuff happens on the clan Web page.”

More EA games will get Vivox voice services in the future, Seaver says, possibly including EA’s console games for the PlayStation 3. (Microsoft’s Xbox Live service already includes a heavily used voice communication channel.)

At the same time, Vivox is pursuing non-gaming Internet users with its Vivox Labs projects—including the 175-million-plus users of social networking juggernaut Facebook. During my visit, Seaver and Sharma showed me the Vivox Web Voice for Facebook app, which lets users invite friends into impromptu voice conversations via Facebook chat, e-mail, or text message (see the screen shot above). Participants can talk over PC headsets or their laptops’ built-in microphones or even dial in from their cell phones. While Facebook wouldn’t pay Vivox to provide voice services to users, the way game publishers do, Sharma says the startup might be able to make money on the service by playing audio ads or by selling “voice fonts,” digital filters that disguise or customize users’ voices.

“If we make voice a valuable part of the experience you are having, then we will be able to monetize it one way or another,” says Seaver. “Today, people appreciate us for the benefits of stronger community—Second Life has grown 650 percent since the advent of voice, and it has made huge amounts of business possible for Linden Lab. It’s important enough for them and for Sony Online and EA to pay us for it. But there are other ways that we could generate revenue.”

So unless Internet users suddenly lose the will to waggle their tongues, Vivox could be on to the biggest thing since talking pictures.

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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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