In the not so distant past, conducting a teleconference between several company offices in different parts of the globe required a dedicated meeting room with large TV screens on the wall and cameras that panned and swayed to capture meeting participants seated at a long table. Needless to say, it was terribly expensive and out of the price range of average consumers.

Then along came webcams and Skype and a host of other services offering phone and one-to-one video calls. The quality wasn’t particularly good, but who cared, it was free.

A new Israeli startup aims to wed those two worlds – providing multi-person video conference calls at no cost, for both consumers and businesses.

OoVoo (the name represents two sets of eyes joined together) can put up to six people on a call at once. Each person appears in a video window that flits about the screen in a design similar to iTunes’ Cover Flow feature. Another six people can join the call via audio only. Non-ooVoo users can be invited as well (though they can’t initiate a call) via a browser-based Java applet.

OoVoo users can instant message each other while they talk, send files and, come April, will be able to broadcast what’s on their computer screens in real time to all call participants – a feature that could give dedicated screen sharing services like WebEx and GoToMeeting a run for their money.

Philippe Schwartz, the French-Israeli founder and CEO of ooVoo, readily admits that his main competition is the now ubiquitous Skype, but he says, the two are very different products. While both Skype and ooVoo use the Voice over IP protocol, Skype started out as voice only. Adding video hasn?t been as successful and the quality isn?t so high, Schwarz tells ISRAEL21c.

Entirely focused on video

In contrast, “ooVoo started out entirely focused on video,” Schwartz says and has, since the company’s launch in 2006, worked to “create an infrastructure to manage the amount of bandwidth available on a dynamic basis.”

Skype, Schwartz explains, maximizes bandwidth by tapping into idle computers with the Skype client open – yes, that’s right, while you’re sleeping, someone else could be sucking up resources from your computer.

OoVoo, on the other hand, brings in the extra bandwidth from a data center it owns in Atlanta. That leads to higher quality and greater reliability, Schwartz says.

OoVoo has had other technical challenges to overcome as well. Synching up the video and audio channels has not been a piece of cake. “It was a big issue but we think we’ve solved it well. And we have a pending patent in this area,” Schwartz proudly points out.

ISRAEL21c tried a call with five video participants. The video quality was excellent but the voice sounded a bit metallic – still a few bugs to work out it seems.

How about mobile devices? With many reports predicting that up to half of Internet access will be from hand held devices by 2011, ooVoo is aggressively researching how to put its video conferencing on smart phones. The relatively limited bandwidth inherent in cellular networks, plus the smaller form factor, means that multi-person video chats will probably not be going on the road any time soon.

Schwartz is much more interested in the emerging “netbook” market, comprising devices which range somewhere between a smart phone footprint and a laptop.

Schwartz is cagey about numbers. He won’t say how much the company has raised, other than that the money is from a private equity fund and that ooVoo, with a staff of 70, still has cash reserves. He also won’t reveal how many users the service has, although he says that the system logs some three million phone calls a month.

OoVoo has a business model that’s becoming increasingly popular these days: “freemium.” The basic service is free, with a premium version offering more features available. The free version serves up advertising and only allows three callers to take part in a call at once. You can up that to the full six with no advertising for $5 a month. Ten dollars a month buys you a number of other features such as the ability to record calls and share files and desktops.

OoVoo is also aiming to generate revenue by allowing manufacturers to bundle the software with a new computer so that the program might be labeled Dell or HP – “powered by ooVoo.”

Funny business

It’s not all serious business at ooVoo. Users can add video effects to call participants like funny hair or glasses. “The younger generation likes that,” Schwartz concedes.

Schwartz was born in France and moved to Israel at age 18. He served in the Israeli navy and received a degree in computer science from the Technion. He worked for a number of telecommunication companies which got him thinking about how the infrastructure he was helping to build in the early to mid 2000s could be used to deploy services and web applications ? like ooVoo.

OoVoo came about in a round about way. He and his investors acquired the intellectual property of an Israeli company that was building video solutions and eLearning applications for the enterprise market. Along with the IP, they inherited a team of engineers who had built the core of what would later become ooVoo.

OoVoo now has a team of 40 in Israel in charge of R&D, 30 in New York (primarily marketing, sales and business development) and 10 in Atlanta managing ooVoo’s data center.

So will it become as ubiquitous as Skype? Maybe the answer should be phrased as a slogan: Do you ooVoo?