Friday, May 25, 2007

Virtual meetings

John Battelle describes HP's HALO system for virtual meetings. Please, let this become cheap and widespread so I can stop schlepping around on planes, trains and automobiles. (Earlier rants here and here.)

Last week I got a chance to test drive HALO, Hewlett Packard's super high-end telepresence application. And all I can say is .... Oooooh, I want one. In fact, I want everyone to have one.

Of course, that's pretty impractical. HALO is, in essence, an extraordinarily expensive television studio cum virtual private network, and I can only imagine the cost of building one of them is in the low seven figures. For now, only large enterprises with serious budgets can afford to install such a system.

But man, after you use it, you really, really want to use it again.

I was invite to a HALO meeting by VJ Joshi, the fellow who runs HP's Imaging and Printing Group (IPG), and HALO is one of VJ's many products. IPG is best known for its printing business, but VJ has a larger vision for printing as a platform, and he wanted to bounce it around with me. (HP is a marketing partner of my company FM. Am I guilty of writing glowingly of a partner's products? Yes, but I only do that when, in fact, it's worthy.) VJ is also on the board of Yahoo, so I knew we'd not run out of things to talk about.

I came unsure what to expect - I've done video conferences before, and I was worried that all the usual glitches - latency, crappy video quality, poor audio - would make it hard to really connect. And I wanted to connect with VJ, I had heard a lot about him, and I was eager to pick his brain.

All that fell away when I walked into the rectangular HALO meeting room. The room was paneled in soft, light brown fabric, and dominating its left side was a board room table of sorts - well, half of a board room table, really, an arc of sorts from the stem to the stern of the room. On the wall to my left as I walked in were three 42+inch HD monitors, arranged at table level. Above them was a fourth screen, the same size.

And it was looking at the image on those screens where the mindbender came in: sitting at the table on the "other half" of the room were four people from Hewlett Packard. They looked jarringly real - but in fact, they were sitting in three different locations. They smiled and said hello when I entered, and I got this eerie feeling that I had triggered a family of Disneyland-esque automatons - they weren't reacting to me, were they? Maybe I triggered some kind of response system a la Haunted Mansion, where the ghost starts speaking to you as you pass by?

But nope, these were the folks assembled from various HP locations around the country, ready to meet with me. VJ sat in the middle, in HP's Fort Collins offices. Others were piped in from New York and Vancouver (I was in HP's Palo Alto offices). But as I viewed them, they were all sitting across the table, as if we were all in the same room. It was, as I've said before, really cool.

VJ gave me a brief tour of HALO's features - the fourth screen at the top allows you to manage the experience, share computer screens, and even share images of physical objects (a square light appears on the table next to you, and anything you put in the light can be seen by everyone else). By the time he had finished giving me the nickel tour, I had quite forgotten we were not in the same room. Our subsequent conversation was as nuanced and, well, as human as most meetings I've had face to face. The sound was superb, there was absolutely no latency, and the system adjusts for eye contact - people know when you are looking at them, allowing for the full gestural language of conversation to flourish.

After experiencing HALO, I asked VJ if he thought it was practical to get one of these into every Kinko's in the world. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders as if to say "Why not?" I'm sure that day is a ways off, and because of that, I feel like a got a test ride of the future. Telepresence for me was some kind of Jetsonian fantasy, a silly, far off concept that I understood intellectually, but discounted entirely because it struck me as unrealistic and impractical. But after experiencing it first hand, it strikes me as the kind of impractical idea - like the telephone or the automobile - that will end up changing the world someday.

Of note: Cisco has a similar product in the market, recently featured on Fox's 24 (see here for more, and Charlene Li's site has a write up of it here).


Dave Bacon said...

Too early to short passenger airline stocks?

Hopefully physicists will find it in themselves to continue their tradition of early adoption.

Steve Hsu said...

Still too early... although airline companies are famous for destroying more investor capital than any other industry!

These days I won't be surprised if biologists and computer scientists get ahold of these before we do... although perhaps at the big labs.

Eventually (10 years?) we'll each have one at our desk!

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