Mingleverse making 3D ripples in telemeeting technology

Every week Techvibes republished an article from Business in Vancouver newspaper.

This article was originally published in issue #1045 – Nov. 3 – Nov. 9, 2009.

While it’s still an emerging trend, telepresence technology has been used almost exclusively by the executive set.

However, Vancouver startup Mingleverse Laboratories Inc. is trying to introduce it to the masses with a virtual application on which two to 50 people, in virtual versions of themselves or in the guise of avatars, can meet online in a virtual chat room.

Ron Stevens, Mingleverse’s CEO, described “mingling” as an experience that blends the online telephone/video service Skype with basic web-conferencing services like WebEx and online virtual worlds like Second Life.

In a business setting, an office manager could deliver a PowerPoint presentation in a MingleRoom to a gathering of colleagues from different locations around the world.

The presenter could walk around the room, acknowledging or speaking directly to members of the virtual audience.

In a social setting, up to 50 friends could gather in a MingleRoom to hold a virtual party.

Stevens emphasized the speed and accessibility of Mingleverse’s application: a group of 50 businesspeople could arrange to meet at a virtual location in Second Life, but that would require each person to have a Second Life account and to download the large software package required to run it.

Mingleverse is a browser-based application like YouTube, so users can send an invite and a link to colleagues or friends to co-ordinate a MingleRoom meeting with no downloading or subscription necessary.

Dave Thomas, a senior partner at Vancouver-based management consulting firm Rocket Builders, is advising Mingleverse; he said the company’s initial market will be in remote or distance education.

“They need to get significant customer validation in specific early adopter markets,” said Thomas. “It’s just going to take them time and a little bit of marketing money to do that.”

Alix Martin, a personal development trainer with U.K.-based Expanding Possibility, is among the first people to embrace Mingleverse’s free beta version.

She used it to deliver her classes online using basic webinar software.

However, as a medium for participant interaction, she said webinar software is no substitute for the training room.

Martin noted that “go-to meetings” software is great for delivering PowerPoint presentations and “dumping” information on the listener, but dreadful for full participation of everyone on the “call.”

“Mingleverse is just like being in a real classroom,” said Martin. “Everyone involved can hear and see what everyone else is doing.”

While Mingleverse is still in beta, Stevens said thousands of people have mingled.

Roughly 20 religious groups are using it to host virtual prayer meetings and other events.

The company is negotiating with the Vancouver Canucks to create a virtual version of the Canucks dressing room in which hockey fans can virtually meet and chat with Canuck players.

Mingleverse is also developing its application so that users could embed a MingleRoom on their own websites.

The company’s business model provides incentive for users to increase their Mingleverse business: if a teacher’s seminar attracts an audience larger than 10 people, Mingleverse refunds his or her monthly fee and collects commission on whatever the teacher chooses to charge for admission.

“We’re selling a platform and a service that lets every individual showcase their talent, sell their expertise [and] sell their products to a worldwide audience that’s not constrained through a physical geography,” said Stevens.

Cofounder Len Layton is the driving force behind the company’s “immersive 3-D high-definition voice and audio” technology.

He has led a number of audio technology companies, including Austrialia’s Lake Technology Ltd., whose headphone technology was acquired by Dolby Laboratories Inc.

Stevens is a former president and CEO of Mixpo, a Vancouver-founded online advertising company. He remains a significant shareholder in Mixpo but relinquished the company’s reins in 2006, choosing to stay in Vancouver rather than move to Seattle with the company.

With six employees, Mingleverse is primarily self-funded. It hopes to raise $3 million in a series A offering in next year’s first quarter.