Preparing for a CEDIA product launch is an exciting project for every residential systems industry professional, especially if the company they are representing is the new game in town. Such was the case for the designers, developers and executives at Touchbridge Systems LLC in the months leading up to the important event, who not only experienced what it was like to introduce an entirely new product into a highly competitive market, but also how it feels when that product is well-received.
It’s been a busy time for Touchbridge’s energetic team. Exhilarated by their success at CEDIA on the weekend of September 7-9, 2001, the company’s members returned to their desks in their Lower Manhattan office building, ready to take on the world. They were barely able to warm their seats.
The building that was home to the Touchbridge offices was far enough away from the World Trade Center disaster area to ensure the physical safety of its occupants when two hijacked planes slammed into the WTC’s twin towers, causing the majestic landmarks to come crashing down during the terrorist attacks of September 11. But limited access to Lower Manhattan’s “Ground Zero” area combined with a flood, forced the company to relocate to temporary facilities in the Empire State Building. Suddenly, Touchbridge execs found themselves using their product development, sales and marketing skills to lift furniture, recover files and fight their way through dust, smoke and rubble, while keeping each other motivated and focused during one of the most horrifying times in history.
“We’re in total crisis mode right now, but there is nothing that you can do. I’m not going to fight it,” said Keith Miller, co-founder and CEO of the company. “Our employees are upbeat. They’re excited, they see that we’re adjusting, and they see progress. In the days following [the attacks] they were itching to do something.” There’s no shortage of things to do at Touchbridge. Crisis mode or not, the contacts that were made at CEDIA must be followed up with, dealers must be selected, and business must get underway. “Right now, we are going through the process of determining who we want as dealers to represent our product, who we think will represent it the best,” Miller said.
The Touchbridge Personalized Networking Platform (PNP) combines all communications, information and entertainment systems within the home on a single touchscreen from which users can receive email and voice mail, gain Internet access, perform videoconferencing functions, access security systems, listen to music, watch television and view movies, receive traffic reports, and access computer software such as Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Because it is a platform rather than a home automation system, Touchbridge’s PNP allows for the integration of various automation products, such as AMX/Panja or Crestron control systems.
“Our platform accommodates as many elements of communication, information, and entertainment as possible,” Miller explained. “We provide a platform to enable access to control systems. If you buy our system, we don’t prevent you from using any and all control systems. It’s somewhat agnostic.”
Here is how it works: For each residence, the Touchbridge system is equipped with a number of individual stations that include a Touch Sensitive Monitor (TSM) and a Personal Tower PC (PT). Each station is linked to the home’s main server via Ethernet. The main server, then, is the home’s link to the outside world, as well as the central server in the Touchbridge Network Operations Center via an SDSL Internet connection. Users are able to access their home systems through the Touchbridge Graphical User Interface (GUI). Each member of the household is set up with their own personal page that is customized to handle that individual’s email, voice mail, and various other preferences. Touchbridge’s open architecture enables the continual expansion of features as the company allies with more and more partners and affiliates.
Robert Berger, co-founder, president and CTO, explained that one of the largest challenges he and his team of engineers encountered was the integration of the hardware and software portions of the system. “The system is part hardware and part software,” he said. “The screen that we designed has a camera, speaker, subwoofer, microphone, infrared reader and fingerprint reader. There were a lot of logistical issues in getting all of the different pieces of hardware to cooperate.”
However, technological challenges paled in comparison to the difficulty in striking a balance between the engineering and marketing aspects of a product launch. “The design was a moving target,” Berger said. “People kept coming up with these great ideas and Keith kept insisting that we implement them. I’ve been involved with other software development projects, and I knew that the marketing people will always promise the customer three versions ahead of what the engineers are even thinking about.”
Berger addressed the issue in a meeting last May, during which he gave his co-workers 10 minutes to come up with any additional features that should be added to the system prior to CEDIA. After those 10 minutes were up only those features that were listed–and no more–would be displayed in Version 1.0.8, the version that Touchbridge exhibited at the trade show.
“There is an element of ‘feature creep’,” Miller admitted. “You are constantly developing new and wonderful features, but you’ve got to be locked down. The companies that integrate their sales and marketing teams with their engineering teams are the ones that win. You’ve got to be nimble in this market.”
Prior to establishing Touchbridge, Berger’s company, U.S. Telecom, Inc. provided computer network integration services to Miller’s firm, MHPG Inc.–a designer, developer and manufacturer of private label branded T-shirts. During the late 1990s, the two men began to conceptualize a concept that pooled their knowledge of business, technology and networking. As the son of a homebuilder who specialized in the construction of custom residences in the Hamptons and other upscale areas of New York, Miller saw the growth potential of the residential systems market. Eventually, the Touchbridge platform was born.
Presently, Berger and his engineering team are in the process of implementing additional features to the system, which, according to Miller, will only increase in demand over the next several years. “You are going to see an incredible demand in integrating network systems through the home environment,” Miller predicted. “There is going to be a lot more time spent at home. Our motto right now is leveraging these four elements: self, home, office, and family. There is going to be the need for network intelligence within the home. That’s why you’re seeing the home gateway space really opening up.”
–Carolyn Heinze works from her media services firm in Toronto, Canada