With 2018 just around the corner, we’re fast approaching the age of the video conference, and new technology is popping up all over the map to help us address the new challenges of business collaboration. One great example of that revolutionary tech comes from Max Makeev and Mark Schnittman, the co-founders of Owl Labs.
Drawing on a background in robotics, which includes the development and launch of the flagship Roomba device by iRobot, Mark and Max decided to transform the way we look at meetings with a video and audio experience that uses AI to enhance the potential of any standard conference.
I sat down with Mark and Max to discuss this clever little bird, and what find out exactly what it’s capable of.
What is the Meeting Owl?
The first question I needed to cover when I met with Mark and Max, was “what is the Meeting Owl, and what can it do?” The Owl is advertised as a robot in disguise for the meeting room, capable of reading facial expressions, body language, and more. It’s a smart IoT, and AI device, which comes packed with an 8-microphone array, 360-degree speakers, and a 360-degree camera lens.
“The coolest thing about the Owl is its intelligence software. This means that it can tell where you are in the room, and automatically focus on different people when they begin talking. There’s a USB to plug into your laptop and computer, and that’s where you run the meeting, using pretty much any software you like. We wanted it to be flexible, so there are no restrictions there. What makes the Owl unique is that it gets smarter, the longer you own it – it’s basically the Tesla of the meeting room.”
According to customers, the Meeting Owl offers an incredibly natural conference experience, something that I was able to experience for myself. It really does feel like you’re in the room, sitting at the conference table, which is perfect for this remote working and dispersed environment.
What Kind of Market Are You Trying to Serve?
The Owl Labs company began in 2014, but the Meeting Owl didn’t launch until June 2017:
“Hardware is hard, we had to invest a lot of money in finding the perfect team and getting things up and running, but we’re here now. Our customers love the products we’re delivering too, they keep coming back and buying more, and it’s amazing to hear people all over the world asking us when we’re going to expand to new countries”.
One of the things that make the Meeting Owl so effective, is the fact that it’s creating an immersive 360-degree tabletop experience for any market. Unlike some of the immersive meeting technology that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, the Meeting Owl costs under $800 USD and gives you the same premium experience – ideal for smaller businesses, or those who want to outfit new huddle rooms.
“By delivering a plug-and-play system that works in everything from big meeting rooms to smaller huddle rooms, we’re trying to cut down the costs of having an amazing meeting. Not only do you reduce the complexity of paying for the hardware, but you can cut the costs of IT support too because it’s a business product, designed with the simplicity of a consumer product.”
“People tried to convince us to raise the price, but we fought hard to keep it where it is. We want everyone to have the opportunity to access this technology.”
Is it a Truly Plug-and-Play Device?
The Meeting Owl is an innovative creation, designed to bring high-quality video and audio to the meeting room. You can either let it do its thing and follow speakers around the meeting room, or take control from your app and focus it however you like.
With so much technology, it’s hard to think of this device as simply plug-and-play, but that’s one of the brand’s most important USPs:
“There’s literally no software for your computer. If you have a computer built in the last ten years, then you just plug the USB in, and the driver that the Owl needs will already be there as standard.”
The analytics work naturally when you’re running a video conference too. You can have all the information about your meetings sent directly through the cloud to your phone, in the form of easy-to-read data that tells you how people are using the conference rooms throughout a company:
“This way, businesses can find out if they’re really making the most of their meeting spaces, while delivering a better conference call experience all around.”
Where’s the Balance Between Robotics and Software Here?
When the Owl Labs team introduced the Meeting Owl to me, they were keen to portray it as a robot, so I was interested to hear how they balanced the blend between software and robotics when making the device:
“We both worked for iRobot, and our whole background is embedded in robotics. When we started this company, we needed to decide whether the device we were making was a robot. I think it is a robot – just not the type you might expect. It doesn’t move around and suck up crumbs like a Roomba, but it has the brain that a robot needs to deliver incredible outputs.”
To the guys behind Owl Labs, the identity of a robot exists in what it can do, and how it can think or learn. In this case, the Meeting Owl learns and responds to participants in a meeting room, while thinking about how to deliver useful analytical information. Now that they’ve got the hardware in place, they’re in the perfect position to continue growing and adapting the software however they see fit.
“We’re constantly looking for ways to upgrade this product according to what our customers need and ask for. There’s really no limit to what we can accomplish.”
The Meeting Owl is currently available in the US, and it will soon be selling throughout Canada too. The Owl Labs co-founders also told me that they’ll be considering international compliance next year. This means that we could be seeing Owls in the UK by the end of 2018.