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October 1, 2007
Vivox at AGDC 2007

By Linda "Brasse" Carlson

I met with Jennifer Almeida, Director of Marketing for Vivox, and spent some time learning about their product, a very adaptable, highly customizable voice client with innumerable applications.

Most of us are familiar with Teamspeak and Ventrilo, which are commonly used by players in online gaming. Vivox is voice software as well, but are they in competition with these two companies?

"Yes and no," says Jennifer, "We provide the SDK to game companies, and they integrate it into the game. So it's not a third-party application. All of the API calls come out to our network, so we are like an ASP."

I am not very good with acronyms. Just in case you're not either: SDK is "software development kit," which allows engineers to create applications for use in their programs. API is "application programming interface," which is source code for an application to allow it to be integrated into a program, such as a game. Finally, ASP is (in this case) short for Application Service Provider, a third-party entity that manages and distributes software-based services and solutions to customers from a central data center.

You should feel more geeky now, armed with this knowledge... but in fact, all you really need to know is that Vivox delivers outstanding, customized, in-game voice utility to developers.

"We support and manage the communications network," says Jennifer, "But the look and feel of the UI, the dynamics of the communications portal, what's allowed, what's not, how many channels and how the players communicate are dictated by the game or virtual world company."

Games such as Eve Online and Second Life already use Vivox technology, and the difference in implementation is a testament to the customizability of their product. I had the opportunity to try the in-game voice with both games, and it was extremely well implemented in both cases.

"We also have other clients, such as Icarus with their game Fallen Earth; Wizards of the Coast have just announced they'll be using our voice for 'Dungeons and Dragons Insider'; and K2 Network's 'War Rock'. We also just announced 'Poker Manager', which is an online community portal." Stated Jennifer, although she declined to comment on other clients they are courting.

Vivox's scope spans a wide range of communities, from MMOs to casual games. In fact, "Wherever a community needs communication," as Jennifer says.

There are problems with existing 3rd party voice products, in that they rely on someone to host the server, or pay to have it hosted, and the host must master the arcane ritual of permissions and access, plus everyone having to alt-tab to change channels or settings. I am surprised that more gaming companies have not moved to introduce their own integrated voice, particularly those that encourage large-scale raids, in which voice is considered essential.

A few companies, such as Turbine, provide their own in-game voice, but I recall it being very buggy in Dungeons and Dragons Online. While it is significantly improved in Lord of the Rings Online, it can still be hit and miss. Not all game companies have the wherewithal to maintain a department devoted to facilitating voice communications, and that is where Vivox comes in.

How much of the headache can you take from the game company? "We work side by side with the developers and game designers. We go in and have a design meeting where we provide the SDK for them. We work with the programmers to get the code in the game and troubleshoot anything that comes up. We assign product managers to the project, and we work out customer support situations," We can take all of the headache away."

In terms of customer support, will they provide it to the consumer or the game company? "Both. Usually, a player will go through the game customer support. If they can't handle it, they pass it on to us," explained Jennifer. Clearly, they are willing to back up their technology.

I was curious as to how long Vivox had been around. "We were formed in August, 2005," she smiled, "The market has a need, voice is here to stay, and people are trying to figure out how to integrate it."

In Second Life, the developers wanted players to be able to easily talk to all people in the immediate area, much as they can in a real-life setting. Jennifer showed me how you can initiate a private conversation with an individual, and also showed me how you can mute other players, much like "/ignore" works in voice chat.

I put on a headset to have a listen in on Second Life. I was able to converse with a Vivox employee who was logged in from Boston to talk to us in this virtual world. The client as optimized for this game features full 3d positional sound as well as attenuation; voices fade and increase in volume depending on distance. It was fanstastic!

Normally dealing with group and raid situations, someone will yell "There's a THINGY over here", and we all try to figure out where "here" is. With this sort of client, you can hear exactly where it's coming from. Now we'll know that it's behind and a little to the left.

The Second Life characters are programmed to perform natural-looking gestures while speaking, which also gained several points in the coolness category.

EVE Online is a completely different style of game to Second Life. "What we have here is a feature called the 'Multichannel'. We'll start in the Corp (coporation) channel, and also have game, private, local. I can switch between the channels to hear and speak in all these different channels."

In a game as complex as EVE, a multitude of channels is vital. The names of all the other players are displayed so that you know who is in each channel at any given time. When they are actually using the channel, a small indicator glows red by the name, and the developers opted to institute a "push-to-talk" option.

The sound quality was tremendous in both products, even with the horrendous noise of the trade-show floor all around us.

I have saved the best for last, by the way...Vivox Voice Fonts, something that I covet for the MMOGs that I play.

Now, I am not a big fan of in-game voice. I like to immerse myself in game sounds, and often find the voice of a 6 foot tall, 250lb man emanating from a tiny female gnome to be disturbing at best. Vivox has the answer to that too, in a very sophisticated and highly entertaining Voice Fonts system.

"We've taken all of the elements that make up our voices: tonality, volume, environmental effects, pitch... and we've created filters that will change your voice," explained Jennifer, "So you'll come out as an Orc, an Elf, a Paladin..."

Even if two people use the same filter, their own voice will modify it such that you will not sound like a group of four robotic, identical Elves. Your voice remains unique.

I think Voice Fonts is ideal to offer as an option for all fantasy games. "We can talk to the developers and they will tell us how they think their player races should sound," said Jennifer, "They're the ones who will decide on the voice options, and how much freedom, how much range they give to the players in the filter."

We put headsets on again, and listened to ourselves speaking with the "Elf" filter... I'd assign it as a perfect match for the Fae races in EverQuest II - no helium required! Switching to Orcs resulted in decidedly scary, gutteral, non-feminine voices - an incredibly effective filter.

The Paladin voice filter is a little different again; it has a sort of heroic echo that is impossible to describe but brilliant in terms of effect. As Jennifer said, "It makes you want to strike a pose." You would not want to use that voice to say "I have to go get the pizza now!" or "be right back, I have to change a diaper!"

Bottom line: I think this is the finest sounding, most diverse and adaptable voice solutions out there. Although Vivox focuses on providing solutions to game developers, they are also working on out-of-game clients as well. These could tie in with instant messenger programs such as AIM and MSN, or can be affiliated with a game client, complete with graphical or audio advertising to help defray costs to the sponsor.

I like it. I like it a LOT, and I did not think I'd ever say that about any voice provider. Viva Vivox!



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