Social business tools don't always live up to their promises of effective, real time, collaborative communication.

Yammer may look a bit like Facebook, but not everyone is comfortable working in groups on Facebook. Conference calls are useful, if you get past the garbled voices. And while Google Docs are convenient and compatible with many programs, many users also find their functionality somewhat limited.

What's really missing is the "social" aspect of social business. It's typically a lot more fun -- and potentially more productive -- to collaborate face-to-face with your coworkers . Of course, that isn't always possible when colleagues on the same teams may work thousands of miles apart.

Getting Some Face Time


It's precisely for this reason that Personify CEO Sanjay Patel has grown so passionate about immersive video platforms that allow workers to see and hear each other while collaborating on documents or making presentations.

"That's really the genesis of the product. It's to help people collaborate more effectively for work and for play," Patel told yesterday as he introduced the latest version of Personify at the Consumer Electronics Association's International CES in Las Vegas.

The new multiuser version of Personify builds on the 3D technology the company used in a single-user version that Patel demonstrated for us last summer.

Essentially, the software creates a virtual green screen behind the speaker, then adds the person's image to on-screen backgrounds. The effect is very similar to the way meteorologists appear in front of a weather map on TV. Each person can be added, deleted, resized or repositioned with keyboard toggles.

2015-05-January-Personify multiuser.jpg

Colleagues sitting at their desks can now see and hear the other people on the call as they share, say, a Google spreadsheet in the background. That may seem like a small thing until you see your coworkers smile or grimace at your suggested changes. Since nonverbal communication is the single most powerful type of communication, this could be a significant step forward in collaboration.

Five's a Crowd

The multiuser system can include up to five faces on the screen with five more on the audio call. Patel said Personify could support more faces on the screen, but "it gets too crowded." The program also can be blended with webinar programs so that presenters can appear on screen with their slides. The basic software is free, with a pro version available at $10 per person each month.

To capture their own images, each user needs an add-on 3D camera or the new Intel RealSense imaging tools that are also being introduced this week. Lenovo, Asus, Acer and other PC makers are introducing new models that include RealSense and "that's just the starting point," said Patel. "We expect nearly every PC from here forward to have 3D cameras in them."

Beyond their use in Personify, 3D cameras can also be used for facial recognition in biometric security locks, to navigate the desktop with hand gestures or for other purposes. So someone facing the audience while pointing at their slides during a webinar can advance to the next slide with a simple wave of the hand.

"Down the road, we're also going to build the ability to collaborate on windows that you share with each other. So I could use my PowerPoint window with you and you could edit it through the Personify platform," said Patel. He estimated that feature would be ready in six or eight months.

Test Subjects

The acid test for all this, of course, is whether Personify really helps workers to collaborate across distances. Patel used his own company as a test subject, connecting workers in Vietnam with colleagues in Chicago as they designed, built and tested the product.

"We use it to do our development. It's something we've been using internally for a long time," he said. "Now, with RealSense, we are able to scale it to a point where we can get real customers and start scaling the company that way."

Photo of Sanjay Patel by Tom Murphy.