CEO Vision: Fusing today’s video calls with tomorrow’s tech

The COVID-19 lockdowns served as a massive catalyst for videoconferencing. In a one-week stretch from March 14-21, 2020, business conferencing apps for iOS and Google Play topped 62 million downloads, which was about 45% higher than the previous week.

Overall, the downloads at that time were a whopping 90% higher than the weekly average of business app downloads in 2019.

The videoconferencing scene isn’t limited to software, however. Video-calling equipment like specialised cameras, tablets, and displays became more ubiquitous as millions now work remotely.

The newest kid on the block is Neat, a Norway-based videoconferencing device company that was founded in 2019.

Neat is helmed by its CEO and co-founder Simen Teigre, a veteran of video communications who was once VP of Product Management in teleconference firm Tandberg, Senior Director of Engineering at Cisco (where he led the unified conferencing products team), and co-founder of enterprise-focused videoconference company Pexip.

Frontier Enterprise recently got in touch with Teigre and talked about the Neat video experience, emerging technologies, the organisation’s business challenges, and more.

Make the technology disappear

While the demand for videoconferencing equipment clearly exists, there are many options currently available for enterprises. So why enter the fray now? Teigre believes that many organisations are struggling with some of the basics when it comes to creating positive video experiences for customers.

“We kept this thought front and centre; in fact, it was key when thinking about what we wanted to achieve at Neat,” he explained.

Neat, said Teigre, began with the idea to create purpose-built, powerful video devices that look “elegant” and easy to use. This objective is reflected in the design of their devices. Echoing the words of tech icon Steve Jobs, Neat’s CEO asserts that their devices “just work”.

“The most exciting thing about Neat’s technology is that we try very hard to make it disappear – that’s our goal. We don’t want people to think about technology, we want them to focus on each other, their interaction and collaboration,” Teigre said.

Following Apple’s example, Neat is aiming for ease of use, which is especially important in the current hybrid environment where many people need to get up and running quickly.

How Neat Symmetry works

Interestingly enough, the pandemic and the shift to hybrid work has eliminated many of the challenges that Neat found in the enterprise.

“Historically, videoconferencing deployments involved a number of different components and complicated setups. They were also typically very expensive, so limited to select large conference rooms or board rooms. Today, most enterprises recognise the incredible value of video to support the creativity and productivity of distributed teams, so they are eager to expand the use of video devices across their organisations,” he observed.

But even with today’s technologies, many of our experiences in video meetings haven’t been exactly revolutionary.

“We have all had video meeting experiences that have been disappointing. We found this particularly true when there you have a meeting where some people are together in a conference room and some are joining remotely – the people in the room become too small to see and hear clearly,” Teigre noted.

To overcome this problem, Neat developed an auto-framing technology called Neat Symmetry, which zooms in on individuals using AI and machine learning to find them and push them forward, giving each person their own pane in the gallery view.

It’s somewhat similar to Apple’s Centre Stage, a video-calling feature on the iPad that automatically adjusts the tablet’s front-facing camera to keep the faces of FaceTime participants in focus. If a participant moves around the frame, the iPad camera can refocus on their face.

Image courtesy of Neat

Neat’s Symmetry works a little differently. It automatically frames and captures all the people in the meeting room, but the technology places each person in individual frames and presents them up close so they appear equally prominent. This avoids instances when individuals may appear small in the video.

If a new person joins or someone leaves the room, the video image will be adjusted and optimised for the new configuration.

Neat technologies

Since Neat was established in 2019, most of its growth as a company occurred during the pandemic. Because of this, many of their people have yet to meet in person. To help its people collaborate amid COVID, Neat relied on several proven technologies.

“Slack and Zoom (with a bit of hard-to-avoid email) is the core of our communication,” Teigre shared. “We are virtual-first, whether we’re in the office or working from home. Everyone has the same experience and every platform we use for operations, R&D, whatever, is in the cloud and accessible to everyone from anywhere.”

Naturally, Neat the organisation uses Neat products as well.

“All of our employees have a Neat device in their home office spaces and we use these to collaborate with each other and with our customers and partners,” he said.

But while the Neat devices look simple, the underlying technology behind them appears quite advanced.

“We are already using AI in our devices to find people and frame them in a meeting. We are also already using machine learning to dynamically and real-time optimise our audio algorithms.  All of our devices are designed from scratch as IoT (Internet of Things) devices, with sensors, and we are using state-of-the-art camera technology instead of legacy PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) camera technology,” Teigre revealed.

“If you think about it, if you have a device with a camera, microphones, sensors, speakers, compute, and an AI machine in a room or place, you can do a lot of amazing things with it. From a Neat standpoint, this is also where we’re trying to push things like Neat Sense. Using the sensors to provide more intelligence, more data, more analytics about space utilisation rates, how many people are in that space, air quality and things like that,” he added.

Teigre predicts that we’ll see these intelligent, high-compute devices going into meeting spaces and becoming so much more than just video systems.

Designed for people

Even with innovative technology, the Neat journey has not been without concerns. According to Teigre, his company’s top challenge is to scale the business to support the massive demand and need for “awesome” video communications.

“We’ve all adapted to using Zoom or Microsoft Teams from our laptops at home – now is the time for businesses to ensure their employees can continue to take advantage of video collaboration in a hybrid work environment,” he said.

The Neat CEO added that they have also focused on supporting employee wellbeing and making collaboration and meetings equitable, easy, comfortable and interactive for all attendees.

“That’s because our devices are designed for people, not just the spaces they inhabit,” he remarked.

An example of this, said Teigre, is the work they’ve been doing with Miami Herbert Business School in the United States. Working with Zoom, Neat helped the school transition to a hybrid teaching and learning environment. The school needed video devices that augmented the engagement between in-person and remote-based students and teachers to support learning and digital content sharing.

Teigre shared a couple of other use cases as well:

  • In Australia, Neat recently helped connect rugby league stars and fans virtually using its video technology as part of a live sporting fixture at North Sydney Oval. A virtual panel, comprising three elite National Rugby League rugby veterans were able to participate in a pre-match discussion, commentate on the game, and then share stories with fans face to face.
  • Neat is also working with Japanese organic lifestyle brand Ikeuchi Organic, which is using Neat with Zoom to mimic the experience of being in its stores. Using Neat Bar, store managers host online meetings and connect with customers who want to see their products.

While headquartered in Europe, Neat is currently setting its sights on growth in Asia-Pacific. As it expands in the region, the videoconferencing newcomer is facing an important question: Can Neat compete with larger, more established brands? Only time will tell.