Interview: Bob Michaels of ZeeVee on the company’s AVoIP journey

ZeeVee has made a remarkable journey from providing solutions for legacy coaxial cable infrastructure to being a leading light in the SDVoE Alliance, promoting the higher end of AV over IP. Paddy Baker talks to the company’s CEO about how it got there, where it’s going, and how best to describe very low latency.

Looking back on my notes from past tradeshows, it appears I first came across ZeeVee at ISE 2013 – although I had met president and CEO Bob Michaels before that, when he was president of Magenta Research. Four years ago, the company was selling products that enabled users to send RF signals via their existing coaxial infrastructure (I took away a promotional t-shirt with the slogan ‘Coax is sexy’). That product line is still available today, but ZeeVee is now much better known for its ZyPer4K and ZyPerHD ranges of AV over IP products, and for being a founder member of the SDVoE Alliance. So how did it make the change from supporting legacy technology to standing at the forefront of the AV over IP movement?

Management discussions

“We sat back and we had these management discussions: what are we as a company?” explains Michaels. “We found ourselves sort of in the broadcast market but with a big foot into the AV market.” This, he says, came from RF modulation products that found a home in the signage market. “It was a market we weren’t really involved in before, but suddenly we had signage people coming to us and saying, ‘I have these 50 TVs that I need to send a signal to, but I don’t want to put a set-top box behind each one.’ So we made a one-channel box that got us into a more secure position within the AV industry.”

His previous experience at Magenta suggested there was potential for larger installations outside the broadcast space. “We said, AV is where we’re going to be, because of the size of the marketplace and the opportunity that exists. So what are we going to do? Well, we’re not going to go the HDBaseT route, because we see it as kind of an irrelevant technology in two or three years. It’s just so restrictive and proprietary – the world is moving towards Ethernet.

“Audio and control were already in the Ethernet domain. We saw the silicon coming for the ability to move video continuously over Ethernet to address the requirements of the AV market, and we said, this is the way to go.”

Then there was the question of differentiation. “We said to ourselves, if we come in with a low-end offering, we come in at the bottom with something simple, we will have 250 other people to contend with, we’ll get lost in the crowd, and we don’t want to get into a race to the bottom. So we needed to step this up.

“We knew the founders of AptoVision – they were 50-60% of the way with their design. Our design team sat down with their design teams and we said, this is a technology that’s going to take hold. One of our founders, Steve Metzger [VP hardware and operations at ZeeVee], likes to say: ‘How do we solve a problem? We throw bandwidth at it.’ Ten-gigabyte Ethernet was still expensive, but it was coming.

“So we decided, we’re going to come out with something that in three years from now is going to be the way the industry is moving. For the first couple of years, the adoption rate will be low, but we’re going to take an educational position here, go out and talk about the capabilities, and talk about the way the industry’s going. And we’ll be in a great position once the adoption comes.”

Having made the decision to take the 10Gb, uncompressed route, it was then a question of finding customers. “We got orders from different places in the market, while trying to figure out where we were going to focus our efforts in terms of verticals.” After initially taking a broad-based approach, he says, “we’re now at the point where we’re focusing on about five different verticals where the action for us really is, on the higher end. People who want pristine video, people who can’t have any latency, people who need the extra capabilities.

“Frankly our price point is good for us, but it’s good for the industry too because it’s less expensive than many of the other solutions out there – so we seem to have found the right niche.”

Flexible platform

Michaels sees the SDVoE approach as having inherent flexibility, even though at the moment only AptoVision manufactures chipsets compatible with the specifications.

“You have to buy a chipset from someone,” he points out. “If you choose H.264 or JPEG-2000 – the chipset is coming from someone. But it’s not FPGA-based, it doesn’t have a lot of flexibility. But with SDVoE you have a tremendous amount of flexibility – you can use this one core platform to do what you want.

“The chipset is at the heart of it, but that’s just one component of it – and the platform will enable people to get creative with the solutions. If you look at the ecosystem that’s forming, it’s not just people with endpoints, it’s not just switch manufacturers, we’ve got manufacturers of projectors, screens – we’re starting to get this broad-based network of people who are interested in Ethernet. I think you’re going to see more software companies coming into it that have different types of solutions.”

He draws a contrast with HDBaseT: “To configure a videowall in HDBaseT, you probably need a standalone processor for the most part – and that takes extra money, extra programming. But with the SDVoE chip, I can do multiview off that, I can do interactivity. The core is in there. Will I need someone to come in and help me create all the different flavours? Yes, but it’s going to be software based.”

A key advantage of the SDVoE approach, he says, is “taking the complexity out. If I can make your life easier, you’re going to come back to me next time. We’ve proven that on the RF side, we’ve proven it on the Ethernet side.”

He continues: ”I think what the Alliance really brings is the ability for this ecosystem to be formed where you can do more with one platform right now – and it’s a very flexible and powerful platform.”

Looking a little more widely, the company has enhanced its portfolio. “We went back to our customers on the broadcast side who are using RF and asked what we could do to nudge them along. So we started pushing IP out of our RF boxes. So for our historical customers who are interested in IP, we can lead them and start to educate them on the IP side, and start to move them forward in terms of using IP for IPTV, digital signage, corporate communications, whatever. So we’ve built a standard H.264 encoder that can be received by VLC, by an Amino box – offering compatibility with something that people are familiar with.”

Future vision

So what’s his vision of what the future will bring – for the Alliance and for ZeeVee?

“We’re kind of joined at the hip in many respects – but for ZeeVee, we’ve got four years invested into the IP scene,” he reflects. “We were in there very early days, adoption of a new technology is always slow, and we also had to make a transition from being an RF company into an IP-based company so we knew that was going to take time as well. We didn’t have many great expectations for the hockey stick in terms of revenue coming in on the IP side until there was more widespread industry adoption.

“Now, for the next few years we’re looking for pretty significant growth for us. In those first three or four years that we’ve been involved in this… we took the time over those years to educate. So over the next couple years we’re looking for that education to pay back. We put ourselves in a leadership position as thought leaders, and people will come to us for advice – people will continue to teach us as well – but people will adopt our technology and what we do and how we present it.

“So we’re looking for rapid growth in the organisation – and looking for good growth in export markets as well. We’ve rounded out our product range to include everything in the IP space from simple H.264 encoders and set-top boxes to our premium product line, the Zyper4K, which is the AptoVision-based solution.

One of his ambitions is to get SDVoE to be certified as a standard, as well as being regarded as a standard offering in the marketplace by dint of its popularity. In addition to this, he wants to continue to have a strong educational platform for ZeeVee and the SDVoE Alliance, to get more people to buy into Ethernet-based solutions. “Let’s face it, at the end of the day we all need to sell something,” he grins.

No such thing as zero?

I ask him about the Alliance’s use of the phrase ‘zero latency’ in describing the SDVoE experience.

“We all know there’s no such thing as zero latency – things do take time. You’d have to get the exact quote from the guys at AptoVision for the latency that exists here, but I think its about two lines of one frame, which may be 15 microseconds or so, so it’s not discernible. And again we’re not doing anything with the video screen – packetise it and send it down, it’s done. We’re not adding anything in there. There’s no such thing as zero and I fault us for that, I’m sure, but it’s as close to zero are we ever going to get.”

But isn’t it misleading to talk about zero if there is no such thing in this context?

“Well, there’s a million things in the market that are more misleading than that, I think – because everybody’s a world leader, for instance. And there’s the 800-pound gorilla in the marketplace who advertises everyday and says ‘the first system…’, ‘the only system…’ – sorry, but we’re three years ahead of you, so I don’t understand how you can be the first.

“But it’s a valid point [about zero latency]: we should stop using it, and probably will. Maybe we could say, ‘the lowest latency physically possible’.”