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 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.

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

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