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Uniphore Acquires Video AI Startup


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Conversational AI vendor Uniphore this week announced the acquisition of Emotion Research Lab (ERL), a company that uses AI, deep learning, and automation to identify emotions and engagement levels in real-time video communications.
Uniphore came to market with its Conversational Service Automation (CSA) technology, which uses AI to understand emotions and engagement in voice. The addition of ERL enables Uniphore to combine voice and video emotion detection, opening a wide range of use cases.
For those not familiar with Uniphore, the company sells directly to businesses, partners with CRM, and contact center vendors to add voice AI capabilities to its customer service tools. Uniphore’s customer and partner base include several big-name companies, such as NTT DATA, Tech Mahindra, PNB MetLife, Firstsource, and Cisco. Uniphore’s product portfolio features conversational agents (intelligent virtual assistants), conversational security, automation (including some integrated RPA capabilities), and analytics. Incidentally, I received an invite to a Uniphore virtual event on Jan. 28, where the word is it’ll be announcing some new products, so we’ll see if things change.
Video AI: It’s Just Getting Started
I’ve been a big proponent of AI and all its aspects, believing it’ll be the biggest transformative technology since the Internet. AI is now embedded into everything, and it promises to change the way we live. AI has already had an impact on many consumer applications. Think of voice interfaces, Tesla’s autopilot, gaming systems, and many mobile apps. In the business world, AI has been used in the communications spaces to enable speech-to-text, noise-cancellation, translations, virtual agents, and other use cases.
By comparison to voice AI, video AI is still in its infancy. Some of the collaboration vendors now have facial recognition, there is video analytics for security purposes, but it’s not nearly as widely deployed as voice AI. The ability for an AI engine to detect emotion and engagement can be game-changing, particularly for many of the new use cases of video.
Consider the teacher that’s trying to lecture over a video meeting. Typically, the teacher can see the content and just a few students. In a traditional classroom, the educator would have the ability to scan the room and see if a student has a quizzical look on their face or isn’t paying attention. With video, that’s much more difficult to do once you get over a few participants. Video AI could be used to flag a particular student and inform the teacher that person looks confused. The teacher could call the person by name and ask if this needs further clarification.
Another use case could be in virtual legal settings, such as trials and depositions. A judge or lawyer could be informed when the person on the stand is nervous or relaxed, indicating whether the person is honest or not.
The medical industry could use this for remote consultations. Some doctors have poor bedside manners and don’t notice if a patient is anxious over a diagnosis. The doctor may know what they are saying isn’t a big deal, but the patient may not see it that way. The AI could indicate to the doctor a change in emotion and recommend they comfort the patient. The use cases are as limitless as one’s imagination.
John Chambers Weighs-in on the Deal
Recently, I spoke with John Chambers of JC2 Ventures, an early investor in Uniphore, and we discussed how video AI could pay big dividends for Uniphore. Chambers is very excited about this opportunity and likened what’s going on in AI to how networks evolved. The network was initially used to transport data. Then, the network became a significant component of voice communications, with almost all forms of voice now being delivered over an IP network. Lastly, video communications eventually migrated to the network, which is where it stands today.
Similarly, AI was first used to analyze big data to help companies find those key insights in their massive amounts of information. Recently, AI has become a critical component of voice for many of the use cases above, and it’s the reason Uniphore was founded. Companies like ERL are now using AI for video, completing the three legs of the stool that evolved the network.
Chambers also compared what’s going on with Uniphore with the evolution of Cisco, the company he was CEO of for 20 years. Cisco wasn’t always the company it is today. At one time, it was a niche router company caught up in a heated battle with Cabletron, 3Com, Nortel, and other companies much larger than it. Cisco then made an acquisition that changed history with Crescendo, which brought switching into the company. The combination of routing and switching was what enabled Cisco to start killing off its competitors one-by-one. He sees ERL being the Crescendo moment for Uniphore, and the combination of voice and video AI being the fuel that ignites the growth engine.
Another parallel that Chambers made to Cisco is the architectural approach. In Cisco terms that meant having a single platform to run all your data, voice, and video. In Uniphore terms that meant a single software platform for your data, voice, and video AI. “Companies do not want individual AI silos. They want to share common information, common learnings, and act on the outcomes,” Chambers explained.
While I outlined several possible use cases above, Chambers said that, in the short term, Uniphore will apply its technology to where the big paybacks are: customer service. This makes sense, as customer experience has become the top brand differentiator, and most digital transformation efforts revolve around the customer. After that, you’ll see the company pivot to sales and marketing, another highly competitive area and a big spend for enterprises.
Chambers is obviously looking at this acquisition through investor lenses, but his thinking is valid. There was more to Cisco’s meteoric rise than buying Crescendo. The company had the right products when the Internet inflection happened. Uniphore is buying ERL when video is going through a major transformation. The pandemic took video, which was once a tool used by a handful of knowledge workers, and made it something used by almost everyone.
Time will tell if his prediction comes true, but it’s indisputable that video will be used for a wider range of use cases than it was pre-pandemic. People are accustomed now to Zooming their doctor or Webexing their financial advisor — this will remain unchanged. Uniphore now has the technology to help us interpret what we see better than we can with the human eye.