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Sanjay Patel made video-game explosions look real — now he's doing the same for your face
Sanjay Patel wants to make you the star of your next business presentation.
Patel is the CEO and one of five founders of Personify, a four-year-old company that sells software to put the speaker center stage in a videoconference at minimal cost and with cutting-edge gesturing technology.
The concept started five years ago in Patel’s research lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he and company co-founders were investigating next-generation camera technology. Patel is a professor of electrical and computer engineering.
The first-generation version was a $10,000 unit the size of a shoebox.
“We started to see a path where that shoebox became cheaper and cheaper and smaller and smaller, where it could eventually integrate with a laptop or a mobile phone,” says Patel, 43, who grew up in Sterling Heights, Mich., as part of a diaspora of educated professionals from India who immigrated here in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“I was raised as an American,” says Patel, whose father was a pharmacist and whose mother worked as a doctor’s assistant amid an extended family of auto-engineer uncles.
Patel wanted to design computers. After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science and engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, he did architecture, hardware verification, logic design and performance modeling at Digital Equipment Corporation, Intel Corp. and HAL Computer Systems.
But it was while teaching as a tenured professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois that Patel realized he wanted to be an entrepreneur.
He took a leave from the campus to work as chief technical officer at AGEIA Technologies, building computer hardware for the videogaming industry.
“We developed deep technology — one of my passions — that resulted in a physics toolkit for videogames,” Patel says. “The companies I’ve been a part of all have deep technical DNA. I consider myself a technical leader, not just a general manager.”
The physics toolkit let videogame designers create realistic explosions, a much-in-demand product that used math calculations to enable results that complied with real-world physics. It was used in videogames for the Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3.
In 2008, visual computing technologies company Nvidia Corp. bought AGEIA.
Patel returned to teaching six years ago at the University of Illinois, where he joined an engineering faculty renowned for video imaging breakthroughs. Indeed, Patel’s co-founders are Minh Do, chief scientist, and director Wen-mei Hwu, UI-UC professors of electrical and computer engineering; Quang Nguyen, director of the company’s operations in Vietnam, who earned his master’s there, and “vision guy” Dennis Lin, a leader on the development team who holds a Ph.D. in computer engineering from UI-UC.
His new entrepreneurial venture, launched in November, is called Personify. It uses software, Personify Live, to insert a speaker’s image in real time into a slideshow, webinar, videoconference or other content, much like a weather person on TV appears to be in front of a weather map. The presentation can be captured for replay.
The setup requires no expensive green screen because the software integrates with web conferencing tools such as Skype, WebEx and GoToMeeting.
The presenter stands in front of his or her computer, scrolling through the presentation by gesturing, rather than using a clicker or a mouse.
“The presenter could be standing in his or her office or at home in front of the fireplace,” Patel says. “That person gets isolated and put into the context of the presentation.”
To make it work, users need the Personify software, an Internet connection, a depth camera like Microsoft’s Kinect and a web conferencing application. The software costs $19.99 a month per user or $199 a year per user.
Patel says research shows the presenter-in-context pitch helps a salesperson close deals because the viewers are more engaged.
“It resonates immediately,” he says.
The market is rich, too. In North America, 70 percent of companies and organizations surveyed have adopted voice over Internet protocol telecommunications systems; 26 percent use high-definition in-room videoconferencing and 47 percent use desktop videoconferencing, according to Forrester Research.
IDC researchers forecast a 2.5 percent revenue jump, to $863 million, in the U.S. videoconferencing equipment market as companies increasingly use video to collaborate.
Personify counts among its clients three Fortune 50 companies and technology standard-bearers Intel and SAP, though it declines to disclose revenues. Personify has become the first enterprise-level partner in Intel’s perceptual computing initiative aimed at finding ways to have more human interaction with computers by using gestures, eye tracking and voice recognition.
The company recently opened a sales and marketing office in the Catapult Chicago incubator in the River North neighborhood, where it expects to grow from four employees to 10, including hiring technology developers, in the next 12 months. Personify also employs 10 people in Urbana-Champaign and 10 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
The company has also launched a second product — Personify Chat — a two-way video chat tool that overlays all participants onto a shared background. People can share the screen to interact face to face.
Photo by Andrew A. Nelles