NEW YORK – It’s no accident that the conference rooms at Vocera Communications headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., are named after characters from the Star Trek universe–Kirk, Spock and Picard.
Just as the communicators that Captain Kirk carried down to alien planets in the 1960s version of the Viacom (nyse: VIAb – news – people) TV show foreshadowed a world with ubiquitous mobile telephones, the two-ounce badge central to the Vocera Communications System was inspired at least in part by the “com badges” that appeared on later versions of the show. Just as Captain Picard would do, Vocera badge wearers can touch the slim device they wear on their uniforms, say who they want to talk to and, assuming that person is wearing his badge, be connected.
The badge contains two chips, one a digital signal processor chip from Texas Instruments (nyse: TXN – news – people ), the other a fairly unremarkable wi-fi radio not terribly dissimilar from those found in any Wi-Fi networking card used in a laptop PC. The TI chip handles all the voice processing and the wi-fi radio transmits them up to a computer network.
That’s where the real work takes place. Hitting the badge button and saying a name triggers a powerful server-based application that matches the name spoken with a database entry. It then locates that person on the network, activates their badges and starts the conversation, which takes place using Voice-Over-Internet Protocol or VOIP–meaning the voices are converted to bits and transmitted over a computer network.
The Vocera badge has been available only for a year. Brent Lang, a vice president at the privately held company, says the company has 60 customers using it, and more than 40 of them are hospitals or health care providers.
“Once we had a prototype, we started doing research into who might want to use a product like this,” Lang says. “At one point we had nothing more than a bunch of PowerPoint slides, that we showed to health care organizations, and we had nurses in tears saying ‘Where has this been all of my life?’ ”
It turns out that communication in a hospital is often an amazingly inefficient affair. Nurses and doctors spend a lot of time playing phone and page tag. Nurses need approvals for treatments from doctors who often aren’t easy to find. Paging the doctor usually takes several minutes, by which time a nurse may have left the station where she was waiting. Then the whole process starts over until finally one catches up with the other.
With the Vocera badge, a nurse needs only to hit a button and say the name of a doctor. The request goes over the hospital’s wireless network to the server, which then locates the appropriate doctor and delivers the message more or less instantly. If the doctor is available he or she can respond right back. If not, the nurse can ask for another doctor, by name or by specialty. Say “I need an anesthesiologist,” and the server finds the nearest anesthesiologist and connects him.
All that time, otherwise lost waiting for instructions or other communication, adds up. One study by the First Consulting Group, a healthcare consultancy based in Long Beach, Calif., found that when the 300-bed St. Agnes Healthcare facility in Baltimore deployed the Vocera system, its nurses saved more than 1,100 hours a year, while the entire organization saved some 3,400 hours.
It’s also easy to integrate the system with desktop phones and mobile phones. The database software allows the device to forward its messages to phones and pagers and also can accept calls forwarded from phones.
Vocera was launched four years ago by Robert Shostak, a software engineer who started a company called ANSA Software, now part of Borland (nasdaq: BORL – news – people ). Vocera has investments from both Intel (nasdaq: INTC – news – people ) and Cisco Systems (nasdaq: CSCO – news – people ).
The company is next looking at deploying the technology with big retailers and manufacturing concerns. Vocera has been working on tests with both Target (nyse: TGT – news – people ) and Best Buy (nyse: BBY – news – people ). The U.S. Department of Defense is also showing interest. Sailors aboard the Navy’s sea-based battle laboratory ship, the U.S.S. Coronado, have installed the Vocera system to speed up communications between crew members. And yes, Star Trek fans, there is, somewhere in that fictitious Federation Starfleet, a spaceship by the same name.
By Arik Hesseldahl