Sharpsburg firm aims to make video technology disappear

The RoData Inc. Real Presence Experience room is demonstrated at the company in Sharpsburg Wednesday, June 6, 2012. The company is celebrating its 25th year.
The RoData Inc. Real Presence Experience room is demonstrated at the company in Sharpsburg Wednesday, June 6, 2012. The company is celebrating its 25th year.
Photo by Heidi Murrin | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
| Monday, June 11, 2012, 7:20 p.m.

People would love video conferencing.

Like mosquitoes to a flame, they would swarm to big, complicated remote controls. The new technology would be irresistible.

That was the assumption, anyway, when video conferencing made its popular debut in the early 1990s. Manufacturers fell in line, cranking out complex-looking devices to dazzle and impress.

But the last 20 years have upended all of that. Walk into the new, $400,000 RPX room at Sharpsburg-based RoData Inc., and you'll find no camera controls at all.

The 18-seat video-conferencing room, equipped with advanced RealPresence Experience technology, should make users forget they're in different places, said company co-founder and President Joe Rodella, 53. High-definition, life-size video projections and near-flawless audio create what RoData calls an immersive telepresence.

"The whole point of having a successful meeting is that the technology disappears" and lets content take center stage, said John Rodella, 55, the RoData CEO and other co-founder. He and Joe Rodella are brothers who grew up in Penn Hills.

They have evolved the business right along with the video-conferencing industry at large, steadily advancing the technology and scope of their full-service offerings. Even in the economic downturn, RoData has kept a 23-employee workforce and a book of 600 customers across the government, education and private sectors.

Last year, the video-conferencing industry generated revenue of $1.1 billion last year, according to International Data Corp., a Framingham, Mass.-based research firm. The industry is predicted to grow 18 percent this year to total revenue of $1.3 billion, IDC said in a March report covering North America.

Another research firm, Global Industry Analysts Inc., said in November that by 2017, it expects the global industry to produce $14 billion in revenue. The San Jose, Calif.-based firm said growth will come from an increasingly mobile workforce and increasing adoption of the technology by small- and medium-sized businesses and in developing countries.

Privately held RoData, a 25-year-old company, is no mass-market operator like Skype, the video software people can used on their home or office computer. Rather, Rodata carved out a niche using cross-network, full-scale video-conferencing products -- including conference rooms -- that work across platforms and computer systems for a high-quality service, the Rodellas said. Customers are scattered across New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where RoData has a Philadelphia branch office.

"We don't want to tell people how to exchange information," Joe Rodella said. "We want people to tell us how they prefer to exchange information -- and tailor technology to fit."

RoData has already sold its latest major product, the RPX video-conferencing room, a handful of times, John Rodella said. He said RoData is among about a half-dozen groups worldwide authorized to build, sell and maintain the immersive-experience products. Their core technology originates with companies like Polycom Co., a Santa Clara, Calif., equipment maker, though the RoData end products are assembled in the RoData facility, in the old Fort Duquesne Brewery on Marys Avenue.

The company's related services run a gamut from desktop video conferencing to live online streaming. For a typical high-end conferencing system at RoData, improved technology has pulled prices into the $15,000-to-$16,000 range, down from as much as $50,000 in the early 1990s.

Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School has found robust value in RoData services for at least a decade, said CEO Nick Trombetta. The school's 11,500 students statewide have access to RoData-supplied video connections. Joe Rodella was once the school president.

"For the quality of what we receive, the quality of the image and the reliability, we've always felt that RoData was our best choice," Trombetta said. "They've always been able to work with us in finding a good price point."

RoData began as a photocopier-networking company, based in John Rodella's basement. He left his job in sales, and Joe Rodella left his job in the nuclear power industry, to set out on their own in the late 1980s.

As photocopier technology changed, though, the Rodellas soon realized that business was limited. They surveyed customers to see what might be the next big thing.

The answer came back resoundingly: video.

By 1993, when video conferencing still involved large, separate components, the brothers started the video side of their business. Within a couple years, they said, the sector started to take off.

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