Reflecting on 25 Years of Iconic Business Technology

9/21/2017 11:20:00 AM
By Jeff Rodman
Full confession: I’m a bit of an introvert, which may seem funny coming from someone who’s spent nearly half his life developing technologies that encourage human interaction. I did not let that stop my passion; it only fueled me to do bigger and better things.

My passion for electronics and audio started at an early age. My mother was a secretary and church organist, my father a radar engineer. My mother would have me practice piano daily and when I wasn’t playing, I was tinkering with electronics or exploring photography (the kind with darkrooms and chemicals). This was not a career plan, and there was no point at which I dreamed these three would come together.

Fast forward to the early 1980s where I met met Brian Hinman, Polycom’s co-founder at PictureTel, a start-up that was poised to become a pioneer in the videoconferencing business. Excitement began to build, but, as we got deeper into the technology and how people were using it, we realized something very important was missing – really good sound. At the time, many users had become so excited at the concept of having their own "TV station," they'd lost sight of the deeper objective which was a problem because the objective of any communications device is to communicate with people who are somewhere else. Technology should extend human interaction, not just show them a picture.

When it comes to human communications, technology is best when seems to disappear. Until this point, no one had figured out how to build a solution that was so good it seemed invisible. There were lots of one-way speaker phones, but they didn't work well which became an expensive problem in business. Poor audio quality can induce mistakes and exhaust your brain. When you're struggling to understand individual words, you're frittering away energy that's needed to understand the meaning. A great conference phone often makes the difference between getting and missing key information.

I knew we could create something better, something that would operate flawlessly and be meaningful within the business community. So, in 1990, Brian and I started Polycom with one mission: to create solutions that allow people to communicate however they want - whether that's audio, video, content, or something else. For Polycom's first target, we chose the major gap in existing systems at the time: voice quality.

When Brian and I set out to build a speakerphone as our new company's first product, we never imagined that it would become an iconic technology. We knew the phone had to work flawlessly, and, as we learned, this meant it had to be shaped in a particular way.

As with every new company, it took use a start or two before we found the right track. We prototyped some wireless microphone systems for business users, then put those aside and built a really excellent single-user speakerphone stuffed with so much technology it would have to sell for $400 (1992 dollars, that's $700 today). That was too much for the market to bear. However, we finally recognized that a device like that, if built for a group, was what the market needed. We also discovered that we could extend the technology we'd already developed in order to achieve that. But the aimpoint was the same: not only did the quality need to be great, but the device also had to be foolproof and easy to use.
Then, we ventured out of Polycom's very first office – my San Francisco basement - to our local Radio Shack to acquire components, and I came across a book on how to build speakers. This book added a very important ingredient that made a big difference to us – the concept of acoustic suspension. We realized that by using a sealed, acoustically-suspended speaker enclosure, we could create two isolated acoustic environments, speaker and microphone, within a single speakerphone. It was this architecture that changed our fortune.

In 1992, we introduced the world to our vision, the SoundStation audioconferencing system. By 2002, we had sold over a million SoundStations worldwide. These solutions have since grown from the low-fidelity connections of a traditional analog PSTN line to HD Voice over the internet, but the importance of a clear, reliable linkage between the speakerphone and its users remains unchanged.

And then there's the shape. When I show people that SoundStation photograph, I’m often asked “why three legs?” Well, there’s a science behind it. We had prototyped many configurations including a standing microphone, one that reminded my wife of a Frisbee, and one that looked a bit like a flattened Darth Vader mask. We even had one that looked like the cartoon character Gumby (that was the single-user prototype). What we realized was that by cleverly processing the sound from a triad of directional microphones, we could achieve exceptionally clear voice coverage. Even today, as other vendors experiment with other configurations such as linear and multidimensional microphone arrays, this configuration, which exploits the native directionality of multiple carefully-selected microphone elements, remains superior for most applications.

Yes, it looks cool, like a “flux capacitor,” but, this triangle configuration became the shape and foundation for our success. If you take off the cover of [most of] Polycom's collaboration microphones, even the golf-ball shaped ceiling mics, you’ll find triangles. Why? Because it sounds the best.

Twenty-five years later, Polycom continues to tinker – it’s what I love to do. We continue to make advances, both in acoustic design and in how those signals are processed, that make the experience even better and more conducive to today’s open work environments.

Every time I’m asked what I do for a living, I feel extraordinarily fortunate that I have been able to play a part in creating such innovative solutions that continue to serve people's evolving needs, even today.
 
Jeff Rodman is a Polycom Fellow and co-founder, engineer, writer, pianist.
 

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