How Vermont Interactive Television paved way for video-conferencing revolution

Published: Oct. 1, 2020 at 1:49 PM EDT
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NORTH HERO, Vt. (WCAX) - By now, many, if not all people, have participated in a Zoom meeting or had a call on Facetime. During the pandemic especially, video-conferencing has become ubiquitous in the ways we work, learn, and recreate. But did you know it was a Vermont company that paved the way for video meeting services, long before we were connected digitally?

For Vermonters in 2020, Zoom is a household name, but the foundation was laid back in 1988, thanks to a company called Vermont Interactive Television.

“It was an amazing journey,” said Linda Brownell, who along with Shannon Devereux and Tara Lidstone, were longtime employees at VIT, before the business closed its doors in 2015 years ago

The mission at VIT was to bring video conferencing and distance learning to all parts of the state using two-way video technology. “It was very exciting to see how people bought into it,” Brownell said.

VIT started with just two studios, but would eventually expand to 17 distance learning classrooms and video meeting rooms across the state. Each had a control room with lines connecting back to Vermont Technical College in Randolph. A computer program would line up the site to their specific event. Those events could be anything from meetings and college coursework to public hearings and job interviews. Government, businesses and nonprofits used the service as well, saving travel time and money

“We weren’t in the video conferencing business, we were in the change behavior business,” Brownell said.

“Yes. Absolutely. Much harder, but much more rewarding too,” added Tara Lidstone.

By the time the venture close it had been renamed Vermont Interactive Technologies as a reflection of the evolving times. “What we’re good at in Vermont is identifying problems and then creating very creative solutions, and this was a very creative solution,” Lidstone said

The system was also voice-activated, so whoever was speaking in real-time would be front and center. Sound familiar? The only difference -- technicians operating the camera and microphones from the control rooms.

“One day we said, ‘you’d be doing this from home.’ It’s just been fun watching technology grow from these little studios in Vermont too. Hey, everybody’s doing this now,” said Shannon Devereux.

Although VIT charged users for the system, primary funding came from the state. That funding ran out in 2015, just as the company was on the cusp of desktop and mobile device connectivity. “We saw such strides through the years,” Brownell said.

But if you ask Brownell, who is now enjoying retirement, the company closed having achieved what it set out to do. “And even surpassed it, even went beyond,” she said. “I can’t help but think that those people who utilized VIT back in the day, had just a little leg up.”

Both Tara Lidstone and Shannon Devereux are currently working in distance education.

VIT, pioneers of connecting people in different places, with the ability to see their faces.

Copyright 2020 WCAX. All rights reserved.

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