Earlier this month, I saw a press release announcing a new version of KUDO Multilingual Web Conferencing. Before I could even write a post about the solution, they put out another press release announcing a further version of the product! I can’t keep up with their development speed, but I can shed some light on this interesting niche play in the web collaboration space.
Founder and CEO Farbad Zabetian was kind enough to spend some time with me, stepping me through his company’s philosophy and the operational details of the KUDO conferencing solution.
Mr. Zabetian acknowledged the barriers to entry in coming into the web events space at this relatively late stage of the game. There are plenty of mature, general-use conferencing solutions available already. But the KUDO concept plays in a different ballpark, and the company has a surprisingly deep background.
The history goes back some 17 years, with Mr. Zabetian’s original company: Media Vision. The business provided professional-level hardware and integration specialists for setting up simultaneous interpreting solutions for physical conference venues.
(“Interpreting” is the act of converting speech from one language to another. Sequential interpreting has the speaker say something and then pause for the interpreter to say it in the alternate language. Simultaneous interpreting has the interpreter speaking at the same time as the orator. This differs from “translation,” which is an offline process of converting materials from one language to another.)
Media Vision has supplied solutions for organizations as prominent as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the International Olympic Committee. So they were battle tested in the most critical use cases.
In 2007, Mr. Zabetian expanded his offerings to provide temporary rental of equipment and services for large-scale one-time events. 2017 marked the start of KUDO, which was envisioned as providing the same level of high-end, professional interpreting support for online webcasts and conferences. Why should all presenters, interpreters, and audience members be required to travel to a single physical location, wired up to the local microphones and earpieces? Web conferencing was a proven way to present and participate remotely. Putting operations on the cloud not only makes it more practical for the meeting participants, but opens up greater access to professional interpreters who might not be able to travel to a meeting location.
When I looked at the basic functionality of the web conferencing platform, I wasn’t particularly surprised… It was just what you would expect from a current-generation tool in this space. Content is shared through screen sharing. Presenters can toggle microphone and webcam on and off. Participants can submit typed questions or comments and can take part in polls. The host can upload documents to share with participants.
The only hint as to KUDO’s special capabilities is a “Language Selector” in the lower left corner. Participants can choose “Floor” (whichever language is currently being spoken by the primary presenter) or one of the offered interpreted audio streams (which would be configured by the event host). Participants can switch back and forth as desired, with very fast audio switching.
As is common these days, the solution is built as a WebRTC-compatible application, so no downloads are required. Clients can run the conference as a typical cloud application off KUDO’s servers, or they can opt to install on their own corporate servers for private siloed operation.
Because audio streams are the primary concern of the product, KUDO is heavily focused on keeping a good quality synchronized audio stream on the air at all times. Even with very large audience sizes (up to 3000 people using each language stream), the latency target is less than 200ms. Network conditions for each participant are continually polled by the system and video frame rates are stepped down if needed in order to keep the audio flowing smoothly. If network conditions improve, the video quality is stepped back up again.
The usual post-webcast reports are provided through the system, with the addition of statistics on which languages were selected by participants so that event hosts can better plan for future conference provisioning.
I was fascinated to learn how the company’s past experience in professional interpreting influenced the rest of the solution offerings. KUDO has created professional webcast studios in 14 cities around the world. These are equipped with dedicated lines, video cameras, booths with microphones and earpieces for interpreters, computers, and specialized switching equipment for the interpreters to use as they perform their arduous task. All equipment in the interpreting booth is duplicated side-by-side so two interpreters can work in tandem, handing off to one another for longer events or for presenters speaking in different languages. KUDO is also working with partners to provide them with the equipment and setup specifications to create additional KUDO-approved studios in more locations.
KUDO also offers a certification program for interpreters. It familiarizes them with the software and the specialized hardware in the KUDO setup. Mr. Zabetian says they currently have more than 600 interpreters signed up and trained on the product. KUDO is not in the business of providing the interpreters for client events as a subcontracted service… That is left as a direct engagement between the event host and their choice of interpreters. But KUDO will help clients find people with the proper skill sets to meet their needs. A client can always use their own interpreters if they prefer. KUDO will put them through the same training and onboarding program, which is a great professional skill enhancement for the interpreter!
KUDO will also help clients integrate in-room interpreting setups with the remote conference so that the floor language and interpreted audio streams are available to both local and remote participants.
After seeing the product demonstration, I had some ideas for enhancements that I thought would extend the convenience of use for non-English speakers. In almost every case, Mr. Zabetian was ahead of me, saying that the concept was already on their roadmap for future inclusion. They wanted to make sure that all technical operations worked perfectly before expanding, so the initial product interface is currently offered in English only. It is only the vocal audio streams that get presented to users in their own language. That will be changing soon, with localized interfaces so participants can navigate the conferencing controls in their own language. I’m not at liberty to discuss some of the other enhancements Mr. Zabetian shared with me, but it’s very obvious they know the space and know what’s needed to make things even better for their international users.
Support for serious multilingual interpretation in web conferences is still rare. While some platforms allow for secondary audio streams, KUDO’s full hardware and studio support for live interpreters is unique in my experience. They have used their experience with local venue interpreting to create an end-to-end solution for clients who need to address international audiences. I’m happy to have found KUDO and its specialized application.