Conference Room Trends: Face Time

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By Jillian Ruffino

Published in the September 2007 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

istock photosSincethe advent of motion pictures, people have been creating futuristicvisions. From Star Trek’s holodecks (which simulate reality in threedimensions) to Star Wars’ holographic meetings of the Jedi Council, thecreative and visionary artists behind these science fiction works haveimagined a variety of ways for individuals to interact. Occasionally,these seemingly far-fetched ideas become reality.

One ofthose ideas is three dimensional telepresence. This technology allowspeople in different locations to interact as if they were in the sameroom through the use of holographic representations. It makes itpossible for separated colleagues to make eye contact with one anotherduring important discussions.

Until recently, buildingoccupants were unable to take advantage of such cutting edgetechnologies. Meetings could only take place within the physical spaceof a conference room, with absent team members incorporated throughtelephones or flat video screens. This setup may not be effective intoday’s fast paced global business environment, where important issuesare increasingly discussed between people separated by distance.

Theidea of conferences taking place in specific rooms or spaces, withevery member of a team present, is no longer relevant. There areseveral reasons for this change.

With offshoring, many jobsare moving to distant countries. When workers are spread around theglobe, communication is crucial to ensure smooth operation, and yet itis simply impossible for workers to gather in a centralized space everytime a meeting is needed.

As economies become increasinglyinterdependent, organizations will need to operate internationally orrisk becoming irrelevant. Leaders must find a way to interact withworkers around the globe.

Another factor affecting the use ofconference rooms is flexible scheduling. The line between home andoffice is blurring, as more employees work from home at least some ofthe time. This trend is picking up momentum.

With all of thesechanges in the modern workplace, what new technologies are being usedto connect people? And why is face to face contact so important?

Technology

Thenewest technologies have been designed to make it appear that everymember of a team is in the same room, whether they are in the office,at home, or on the other side of the world.

Duffie White isthe founder of TelePresence Technologies, LLC, based in Dallas, TX. Hiscompany develops and manufactures telepresence solutions and hascreated a three dimensional system.

White explains, “Thesystem is a completely self contained unit, so it can be placed at theend of a table. The person being communicated with appears to bepresent from across the table, and people in different locations canmake eye contact with one another as if they were in the same room.”

istock photos Separated by geography, these workers take advantage of TelepresenceTechnologies’ self contained unit. It can be rolled up to a table ordesk to provide even more flexibility. (Photo: telepresencetechnologies) istock photos Integratedconferencing using BrightCom’s technologies helps police departments togather and coordinate, creating a powerful alliance against crime. Somecommunications are too important to rely on the telephone, where facialexpressions and gestures cannot be ascertained. (Photo: brightcom)

This unit is on casters, so it can bemoved up to a conference table or desk and later rolled out of the way.The plasma monitor can display one person or a small group.

Thistechnology differs from the use of flat screens for telepresence. Whilean effective form of conferencing, flat screens do not offer alignedeye contact, since cameras are typically positioned outside the screenarea.

BrightCom, another teleconferencing and telepresenceprovider, is located in Huntington Beach, CA and headed up by CEO BobMcCandless. His company, as he outlines it, “blends together differenttypes of video conferencing. We cover different interconnections toallow people to share video images across a variety of platforms.”

Hesays, “One of the things we’re seeing a lot of interest in right now isour telepresence suite. This allows organizations to have a highdefinition video conference that gives the illusion that everyone is inthe same room.”

This is the difference between telepresenceand traditional video conferencing. McCandless continues, “This makesit look like people are in the same environment, instead of appearingto be in different rooms.”

With video conferencing,distracting background noise and motion are negligible when the meetingis between two people. When more people get together, however, theaccompanying sounds and surrounding activity can become a distraction.

Inorder for organizations to implement BrightCom’s solution, they mustbuild telepresence suites wherever they anticipate the need forcommunication. Each room must match every other room in order to createthe illusion that geographically distant individuals are in the sameplace at the same time.

Face To Face

It isinteresting to note that, as people move farther away from one anotherphysically, they search for technologies to bring them together again.

 

Whitesays, “There are times when a sense of presence is very important.” Hecites an example of one organization that has taken advantage ofTelePresence Technologies’ solutions. It is an international company inthe financial services business that regularly deals with large sums ofmoney; discussions between this company’s employees often involvemillions of dollars.

“The higher up on the scale anorganization is, the more valuable the communications are,” explainsMcCandless. He continues, “The older way of conducting videoconferencing, where you’re just looking at an image from another office, really isn’t a rich enough experience.”

Whitebelieves telepresence technology creates a closer sense of connectionand normalizes interactions between people. “When you have technologythat is not as realistic, it can get in the way.” He says. “A phoneconversation is just not as good, because you can’t see the personyou’re talking to.”

Furthermore, as White points out, bodylanguage and facial expressions are crucial when people from differentcultures interact. Misunderstandings may increase when low techcommunications create a barrier.

The Future

In terms of conferencing, facility managers may need to rethink the concept of rooms and their occupants.

“Theoffice of the future will change radically from being a physical placeinto a connection of people through very high level communicationtechnology,” predicts White.

McCandless takes this visionone step further, eliminating the need for people to have a physicalpresence. BrightCom gathers inspiration for future advances from SecondLife, an Internet based virtual world. “We’re looking into usingavatars to map people realistically, so if they don’t choose to be onvideo, they can be represented through this avatar. A lot of peopleenjoy the level of separation an avatar gives them in order to avoidfeeling as though they were on video all the time.”

Another possible advancement would be the ability to share data and images in real time displays.

Morecurrently, McCandless believes many buildings will begin to incorporatevideo on a widespread scale. “In conference rooms, with prices comingdown, video will become a common component.”

He envisionsan explosion in the use of video conferencing, with a growing number ofusers taking advantage of three dimensional telepresence as well.“There will be a blend of these technologies throughout the workplace.”

Facilitymanagers have always been responsible for building collaborativeenvironments to connect occupants. As needs change, conference roomsand office spaces must follow suit with appropriate technologies.

This article was based on interviews with McCandless and White.

To discuss some of your experiences in real time, come to FacilityBlog; to comment on this article, send an e-mail to [email protected].

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