Tech conferences coming soon to your living room

Sundance draws virtual attendees

The Sundance Film Festival attracts more than 40,000 people every year to showcase some of the most prized independent movies. But space is limited and getting to Park City, Utah, in the dead of winter can be a hassle.

So when Silicon Valley start-up Blue Jeans Network came calling with a cloud-based video offering that could potentially help the festival reach many more virtual attendees, Sundance Institute Chief Technology Officer Dave Ginsberg was all ears.

"We reach a lot of people though our programs, but we want to get to the point where you're not limited by geography to be able to enjoy what we provide," Ginsberg said in an interview ahead of the festival, which started Thursday and runs to Feb. 1.

Sundance is piloting a Blue Jeans product called Primetime, which was unveiled in December. For this year's festival, the Blue Jeans technology will be used to stream a very limited slice of the event, but Ginsberg hopes it becomes more integral next year and a bigger part of the Sundance Institute's other events and projects.

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Primetime was designed to make it simple for any event to widely broadcast its live activities over the Internet. While webcasting has been around for two decades, it's lacked the social and interactivity piece to engage with dozens, hundreds or thousands of people in remote locations.

Blue Jeans, founded in 2009 to take on Cisco and Polycom with Web-based videoconferencing technology, is jumping into the events space and aiming to change how conferences reach the masses.

At Primetime's core is the ability for a remote attendee to raise his or her hand virtually and be called upon by a moderator. A person at home on a laptop, tablet or smartphone can be brought to the big screen to ask a question.

"We're marrying videoconferencing and broadcasting and then getting the audience involved in an interactive fashion," said Blue Jeans Chief Executive Officer Krish Ramakrishnan, who worked at Cisco before starting the Mountain View, California-based company. "We're changing how events are actually marketed."

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Blue Jeans has raised about $100 million in venture funding from investors like Battery Ventures, New Enterprise Associates, Accel Partners and Norwest Venture Partners.

At the time of Primetime's launch last month, Blue Jeans said it had 20 trial customers using it, including Red Hat and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. TEDx will be using the technology for conferences this year, and Ramakrishnan said he soon hopes to engage in discussions with South By Southwest, the Austin, Texas megafestival held in March that includes music and film galas as well as a tech conference.

Sundance will feature Primetime for a few sessions. The first is on Monday for the premier of the documentary "Most Likely to Succeed," about a tech-focused high school in San Diego that's offering a new educational model.

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As the movie is being shown at the festival, students at the San Diego school will get to watch it and then be brought into a panel discussion with the producer, writer and others involved in the film. Some high schools in Utah will also be part of the discussion remotely.

Primetime will then be used to broadcast to a select group of people a panel on Wednesday focused on how companies are producing films for modern audiences. And Blue Jeans will have a lounge on Main Street in Park City for events including a discussion on women in film.

"We're starting small and over time hoping that we can build it out," Ginsberg said. The hope is to "build this more into structure of our festival and utilize the technology for everything it can do."

Primetime will be priced based on size and duration, with a typical 1,000 person one-hour event costing about $3,500. However, for the next 60 to 90 days, Blue Jeans isn't charging users.

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"Even though we've run the product for months, until we have these first marquee events, it's hard to get someone to take that leap of faith and jump in," said Stu Aaron, the company's chief commercial officer.

While the technology has all sorts of potential applications in entertainment, sports and education, actually broadcasting films from Sundance to a wide audience may not be in the cards.

As much as the festival wants to bring its content to as many people as possible, the legal issues around streaming movies and the risks of potential piracy create some limitations.

"We're always interested in making sure filmmakers have control over the product," Ginsberg said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Ginsberg's name.