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Zthere turns smartphones into a collaborative tool

Posted by Scott Kirsner  March 15, 2010 09:54 AM

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Ever try to use your mobile phone to talk someone through changing a tire, fixing a complicated piece of industrial machinery, or defusing a bomb and just wish you could just draw them a picture, or point to the relevant wire you're trying to get them to yank?

A Cambridge start-up called Zthere has a nifty solution to that vexing situation. The company has developed software that uses a smartphone's built-in camera and its ability to record and transmit spoken instructions to enable what you might call "annotated collaboration." Just snap a photo of that ticking time bomb, and a far-off expert can draw on the photo, drop virtual push pins on key spots, and talk you through the steps you need to take. 

Zthere's founders are serial entrepreneurs Matthias Wagner and Dan Ostrower. Ostrower writes via e-mail, "The idea was born out of frustrations that Matthias and I have had during years of hardware development and entrepreneurship. For example, flying people to Asian manufacturers to solve problems we felt there should be a way to solve remotely. ...We started asking ourselves, 'How could you show a tech in a factory how to use a thermal camera without sending him to training and without having someone next to him showing him what to do?'"

Ostrower says they like to describe the concept as similar to WebEx or LogMeIn (services that let you hold online meetings or access a remote computer) but for the real world. Development of the product started last fall, and Ostrower showed me an iPhone demo last week that looked pretty smooth. You can choose to record and store a "session" to be viewed later an annotated photo with audio that talks the viewer through replacing an air conditioner filter, for example. Or, if you have access to a 3G or WiFi network, you can collaborate in real-time, pointing and dropping push-pins on one another's screens and asking questions.

Zthere plans to release a free iPhone app later this year; an alpha test is happening now. Next will be an Android app and a Web-based version of the software.

As for the revenue model, the current plan is to offer a subscription-based service to business customers. "We are targeting segments and applications where Zthere can have significant payback equipment service, remote manufacturing management, construction management, public safety, military, etc.," Ostrower writes. His hope is that it'll be a new way for people in big companies to share their expertise, no matter where they're based.

Ostrower tells me he and Wagner have been self-funding the company thus far (and relying on hired contractors for development), with the goal of raising outside capital at the right time. Their previous start-up, RedShift Systems, a developer of inexpensive thermal imaging cameras, has raised $18 million so far (RedShift is still working on getting a product to market). Ostrower was also an early team member at SMaL Camera Technologies, which was acquired by Cypress Semiconductor in 2005. (Cypress flipped it to years later to Attleboro-based Sensata Technologies, which went public earlier this month.)

Here's the YouTube video demo:

If you're interested in participating in Zthere's beta test, Ostrower says their bias is toward teams of business users who need to collaborate.

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Innovation and technology news that matters, on a new website from the Boston Globe, featuring Scott Kirsner and other original reporting.

About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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