Q: Is Google Glass sexy?

A: If Google Glass didn’t exist, […] Silicon Valley guys would be having affairs or buying unsuitable motorbikes (As noted by a post on Tumblr: Ref 1). But as you will see, there are some compelling industry applications about to emerge…

If you are looking for compelling reasons not to buy Google Glass then checkout the many photos at White Men Wearing Google Glass (this site is ‘family friendly’, but not very stylish or elegant).

Then again, neither was this photo of Robert Scoble, taking a shower with Google Glass; nor did it help convince a sceptical public:

Q: Is Google Glass sexy? A: Yes, but It depends on compelling applications.

Q: Is Google Glass sexy? A: Yes, but It depends on compelling applications.

Then I came across this video (3 mins) from SAP and Vuzix (who manufactures their own augmented reality goggles for industrial applications) and things started to make a lot more sense:

Here was a compelling application of Google Glass technology in a commercial environment. This is a vision of the very near future – where warehouse pickers do their day to day jobs with great improvements in:


  • Pickers were guided to exactly where they needed to go, to pick up and drop off
  • They were also reminded of size and quantities required as they got to where the items were located – location context
  • Items and quantities were confirmed as they were picked
Picture 1: Augmented Picking - Pickers guided to exactly where they needed to go to pick up and drop off

Picture 1: Augmented Picking – Pickers guided to exactly where they needed to go to pick up and drop off


  • Picking slips could be prioritised and served up to the closest worker, cutting down time criss crossing the warehouse
  • Scanning can take place as the items are picked up – hands free – there was no fumbling with extra scanning equipment
  • Pickers could be informed of possible equipment malfunctions and directed to perform simple repairs – including video calls to specialists for help
Picture 2: Augmented Scanning - Scanning takes place - hands free - as the items are picked up - there was no fumbling with extra scanning equipment

Picture 2: Augmented Scanning – Scanning takes place – hands free – as the items are picked up – there was no fumbling with extra scanning equipment


  • Pickers didn’t have to take their eyes off of where they were going
  • They were forewarned of possible collisions – relevant location context again
  • The goggles could be shatter resistant to comply with Occupational Health and Safety (OHS)
Picture 3: Augmented Diagnostics - Pickers informed of possible equipment malfunctions and directed to perform simple repairs - including video calls to specialists for help

Picture 3: Augmented Diagnostics – Pickers informed of possible equipment malfunctions and directed to perform simple repairs – including video calls to specialists for help

Google Glass is a strange set of contradictions:

  • Google Glass – is a Heads Up Display (HUD) for consumers – which will connect & deluge consumers with information like never before
  • Yet the original appeal of HUDs was to minimise information overload and maximise efficiency of pilots and (now) drivers
  • Google Glass is a whole new category of ‘wearable computers’ – and the latest wave of the consumerisation of IT
  • Yet so early in its introduction it elicits as much fear and loathing – especially around privacy – as it does wonderment – unlike the introduction of the iPhone nearly 6 years ago, back then people where either mesmerised or ambivalent

To me there are two factors missing with Google Glass:

  1. Google Glass is incredibly bulky:  Seeing someone wear them is distracting, almost ugly – especially in a world where you pay more for elegant glasses and sun glasses. Today’s Google Glass is a slightly evolved prototype, it is is a bit like looking at the Wright Brother’s Flyer and dismissing the next 100 years of the aviation industry. Clearly the technology will rapidly evolve – Google Glass should (hopefully) become indistinguishable from regular glasses and sun glasses – which raises all kinds of new concerns around privacy.
  2. Where are the applications? The initial applications merely replicate the basic functions of today’s smartphones – to me there is nothing particularly unique or compelling about Google Glass, especially as it isn’t that hard for me to look at the smartphone in my hand. But applications like above, make this kind of technology a lot more compelling.


To me this is a perfect example of devices, networks and applications coming together to enrich the way we work and play (but more work in this case).

It is also an example of how unified communications is evolving into supporting Communication-Enabled Business Processes (CEBP) a way of optimising business processes by reducing human latency that can exist within a process flow.   I like to think of it how ICT is starting to become woven into the fabric of our day-to-day lives.  More on this next time; or check out my previous blog on CEBP in the finance industry with “The Virtual Expert – enriched customer experiences.

PS. Google Glass is already having an impact on society at large – with some impacts that  Google may never have intended.

The Urban Dictionary has 8 definitions for the term “Glasshole.” 7 of these definitions have an average of 40 likes (+ or -) referring to glaziers, or obnoxious ice hockey fans…. The latest definition (below) has nearly 10,000 likes since it was first posted 3 months back (March 2013):

Glasshole (noun) – A person who constantly talks to their Google Glass, ignoring the outside world…

Posted in Augmented Reality, Business Process, Collaboration, Communications Embedded Business Process, Mobility, Presence, Smartphones, Unified Communications, Workflow | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Holograms are nice (and I should know); but the more we can make business video have the quality of the TV News, the faster business will adopt it. Resolution is one factor, but so is lighting, sound quality and even the position of the participants… the better and more lifelike we can make our remote meetings, the better we can work together.

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The “virtual expert” – enriched customer experiences, coming to a screen near you

Every time there is mention of an Icelandic volcano, airline strike, or traffic jam (or any other disruption to travel) there is an exponential kick in enquiries about Video Conferencing.  But Video can be much more valuable to business than meetings and collaboration!

Don’t get me wrong, Video in business is a very hot topic. IDC estimated that Video Conferencing grew 24.6% year on year in 2011. But the use of video in business is still in it’s infancy.

Self service kiosks and ATMs have become quite the norm for helping to reduce waiting time for customers performing simple transactions – checkins, withdrawals… But kiosks can only service the most basic of customer transactions.

There is growing trend of organisations adapting video conferencing and using it as a “virtual expert.” Having rich face to face experiences that connect customers with the most appropriate expert to deal with the customers enquiry, even if the expert is working in a different location or even working from home (telework).

Customers get the satisfaction of dealing with the best person available with the minimum of waiting. While the organisation gains greater productivity from their most valuable experts as well as offering these valuable experts greater flexibility and security.

Examples of handling customers in the 21st century, but one of these things is not like the others...  The left example could easily be from the 1970’s; the other photos are examples of enriched customer experiences from Coastal Federal Credit Union in North Carolina and Hertz USA

Examples of handling customers in the 21st century, but one of these things is not like the others… The left example could easily be from the 1970’s; the other photos are examples of enriched customer experiences from Coastal Federal Credit Union in North Carolina and Hertz USA

Hertz now has 76 video enabled kiosks in US airports – and expanding with another 169 kiosks on the way.

Hertz wanted an efficient way to minimise travellers wait time to rent a car but they found traditional kiosks (similar to those airlines use) couldn’t cope with complex car rental transactions.  Walk up car renters must consider:

  • Insurance plans,
  • Fuel fill-up plans,
  • Car accessories like GPS, baby seats, tollways…
  • While the rental agency also requires a driver’s license.

CIO magazine reported a Hertz survey of their video kiosk customers that showed:

  • 82% rated their experience with the interactive video kiosks positively
  • More than 66% of airport renters said they would use video enabled kiosks again, citing faster service, convenience, ease of use and no waiting in line.

The benefits to Hertz included improved customer service, increased sales of upgrades and additional services, and ultimately allow Hertz to expand into [previously difficult locations like] auto-repair shops, hotels and parking garages without the cost of building and staffing a new rental counter.

At Coastal Federal Credit Union’s 15 branches in North Carolina, customers are directed to video screens that connect to 36 tellers in a room at the credit union’s HQ. The Wall Street Journal reported the bank estimates it cut costs by 40% by eliminating its branch tellers. While customers still get personal contact and the remote tellers can make judgment calls that an automated system can’t, such as deciding whether a check can be cashed immediately.  You can see a short news video here:

So what’s the difference between using video for collaboration and using video for a “virtual expert?”

Technically, not a lot.  Socially, it can be a challenge for both the customer and the expert.

Technically, the way I like to think about it is taking the basic building blocks of Video Conferencing and adding extra applications and functionality to deliver new kinds of outcomes and experiences. Much like the new value and outcomes you get on your tablet when adding new apps.

Let me show you how this works by looking at the basics of using Video to connect meetings.

Easy Video Meetings – Video Calling vs. Video Conferencing using a unified network

Most Video Conferencing is simply used for point to point meetings, that is connecting from one location to another.  A better way of describing this is “video calling,” is that users in one location connect to users in another location by simply dialling the other end.

On a unified network this “dialling” is just as easy as dialling a regular telephone number.

Actually it is just a regular telephone number, the unified network works out the best possible quality – voice calling, high quality voice calling, video, high def video… between both ends; its all taken care of by the network.

If I want to have 3 or more locations connect to the one video meeting (a “multi point” meeting) then you would simply have each location dial the telephone number of a “virtual meeting room.”  This is similar to the difference between a phone call (point to point) and a phone conference (multi point) using a virtual meeting room.

In both cases the unified network does all the work while leaving users to get on with collaborating using the best possible experience; there is nothing else for the caller to press, no need to know what the other end is using.  This feature of a unified network to deliver the best possible user experience has become a lot more valuable in the last 12 months as new generations of networks and devices have become available while supporting the latest in open video standards.

This means that video callers can be on nearly any device anywhere:

  • Video Conference room to Video Conference room
  • Video Conference room to desktop client
  • Desktop client to Tablet client
  • Tablet client to desk phone
  • Desk phone to Video Conference phone
  • Any other combination of point to point or multipoint meeting
Video Collaboration on a unified network - tablets, laptops, phones and Video Conferencing clients all connecting together in Video.

Video Collaboration on a unified network – tablets, laptops, phones and Video Conferencing clients all connecting together in Video.

It is the unified network (fixed or wireless – WiFi, 3G or 4G) that enables everything and everyone to have the best possible collaboration experience.

Video is one of the few applications that everyone “gets.”  Video connects you visually and emotionally.  On video there is no easy way to “lurk” like on a phone conference, everyone can see if you are engaged (or not).

It is the next best thing to having a face to face meeting.  So how do we take these “building blocks” and apply it to the “virtual expert.”

Video connecting customers with the experts they need

The main difference between using video for collaboration and using video for a “virtual expert” is knowing how to handle the customer’s enquiry:

  • Which expert has the right skills to handle a customer enquiry?
  • Is the expert available now to answer the enquiry?
  • Where is this expert? At a remote office, working from home…

A typical contact centre application handles these same issues everyday – and on a unified network that takes care of both voice and video calls it makes sense to take advantage of these workflow and presence capabilities.

Using a unified network to connect a customer with a loans expert. Scaling the quality of the experience to suit the customer.

Using a unified network to connect a customer with a loans expert. Scaling the quality of the experience to suit the customer.

Remember that the unified network does all the work in giving the best possible experience between two locations.

The same automated prompts that a contact centre application uses to direct a customer’s phone call can also be used to handle a face to face enquiry from a customer at a kiosk.  For example:

  • Press 1 – to meet with a Foreign Exchange expert
  • Press 2 – to meet with a Finance & Loans expert
  • Press 3 – to meet with a Investments expert
  • Press 4….

To the contact centre application both lots of customer enquiries are simply telephone numbers and if it’s possible to escalate a voice call to a video call it will do all the work – the customer and the expert just get on with their conversation.

The next leap (not too far away) – from private IP networks to the broader Internet

The examples of Hertz and Coastal Federal Credit Union show the handling of remote enquiries across their private networks – with customers walking into their various locations.  A private IP network is the typical way that most organisations would manage day to day transactions, because of a private networks greater control of security and quality.  But this limits the “reach” of these “virtual expert” applications.

The next big leap of “Virtual Expert” is allowing rich collaboration across the Internet – so that anyone, anywhere on the Internet can have the same rich collaborative experience when it suits.

A customer visits a website, and if they desire more information they can choose the kind of interaction with an expert that suits them:

  • Fill in a form and contact me later – voice or video with an expert
  • Instant Messaging / Chat with an expert
  • Voice / Video and desktop sharing with an expert (or start with chat and escalate to a richer experience as the interest increases)

These kinds of interactions are readily available today.  The challenge is that they often require the customer to download software and or establish an account (like Skype, Google+, Webex…).

Many customers may already have set up a Skype account… but not all users will be able to connect (dial) to all their counterparts on different services (Skype to Google+…), as there is no universal number to reach between different platforms across the Internet (Please see my previous blog).

But a new browser standard called WebRTC (Real Time Communications) may help alleviate this by building voice & video collaboration into all browsers – no need to download software or setup accounts.  You can see a simple demonstration of WebRTC here:

Technical vs social aspects of “Virtual Expert”

As you can see most of the technical building blocks are already in place for “Virtual Expert” and it will become more pervasive as better networks, devices and standards are rolled out.  It is a great example of  connecting ideas from different fields and applying them to enrich life.

There are a great many applications of delivering rich collaboration in a broad range of industries – finance, health, government, education…

But “virtual expert” is not the answer to all situations.


Posted in Collaboration, Contact Centre, NBN, Optus, Presence, Smartphones, Tablets, TelePresence, Telstra, Uncategorized, Unified Communications, Video Conferencing, Web, Workflow | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

NBN – A 21st century data network with a 1930s telephone system

Jane Jetson in 2064 calling a friend.  But things get tricky if Jane was on a different Service Provider to her friend in an NBN enabled Australia.

Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) is an initiative that everyone should be excited about.   This project represents one of the largest predictable market disruptions in Australian history.

While there is a lot of discussion on the rate of installations and the choice of infrastructure it’s sad that no one is working on upgrading the call control system that links us all together (aka the phone service).

In an IP world like the NBN, open standards such as SIP and H323 supersede PSTN (the standard phone service) and can support a much richer calling experience such as High Quality voice, and High Definition video.  This environment is also future-proofed, allowing next generation services to be added as they become available.  Have a look at this example of a next generation compression standard – higher quality images using less bandwidth

To the layperson, what this means is that if I dial a standard telephone number from my compatible handset and the other end is also compatible, then both the recipient and myself get a much better experience – HQ voice quality, HD video and more.  This is also true if I dial a standard telephone number on my laptop, tablet, smartphone, TV, or any combination of devices, using a suitable application / soft client.

People in my mum’s generation see little tangible benefit from the NBN to their daily lives.  Chances are most people in this segment will likely bypass NBN all together and simply opt for a mobile phone for day to day use.  This is perfectly legitimate.  But I believe that many of my mum’s generation will readily jump at NBN if they can see how a next generation phone works the same as their previous phone, but shows them face to face video with their grand children…

This isn’t a revolutionary idea, business grade IP Telephone services have been available for more than 10 years now. IP Telephony solutions from Cisco, Telstra (aka TIPT) and others allows users on handsets, laptops and smartphones to make and receive calls like any standard PABX environment.  Over the years users could easily upgrade to improved services as they became available, HQ voice and video, while keeping the same phone number.

Same thing on Skype, users started using new services as soon as they were enabled.

Call an older generation client, and the network would drop you back to the lowest common standard; as a minimum PSTN voice.

In an NBN enabled Australia there is no plan to support this between customers on different Service Providers.  The interconnect between Service Providers will be PSTN, not just the lowest common standard, but the highest common standard as well.

What this means is that if you call using HD /Video handset on a Telstra provided network and and ring a compatible HD /Video handset on an Optus, then you get PSTN quality regardless of the intelligence at both ends.

At this point many people will say that everyone should use Skype – or other Internet based services.  That’s a perfectly good answer.  Except not everyone is on Skype.  Nor does Skype easily connect with others – other than PSTN again.

But why not upgrade the network so that everyone everywhere can take advantage of new technology regardless of their service provider, or their service?  Keep the simplicity of PSTN (just dial a number), but with better outcomes for all users.

In July 2012 it was the centenary celebrations of the first automated telephone exchange  introduced into Australia (Geelong) ; read more here.

100 year anniversary of the first automated telephone exchange in Australia

But overseas there are moves beyond PSTN.  In early November 2012 AT&T announced its plans to move beyond PSTN, in a $14B upgrade to its core network:


But in Australia?  NBN is an access network – allowing Australians to have high speed access to their service providers.  Service Providers can gain customers by offering all kinds of value added services and applications.  But there are no plans for Service Providers to make it easy for their customers to connect with customers between Service Providers.

VCXC – Voice Communication Exchange Committee – is a US based nonprofit startup working to speed the transition to all-IP networks and upgrade core voice services like HD. The clock started for a six year all hands on deck transformation of telecom in June 15, 2012.  You can read more about the VCXC initiative at: http://vcxc.org/index.html

But what is going to compel Australian Service Providers to act?

The upgrade of the access network (NBN) only came about as an act of aggressive political differentiation.  Who is going to champion the way we connect?

Posted in Collaboration, NBN, Optus, Presence, PSTN, Smartphones, Tablets, TelePresence, Telstra, Uncategorized, Unified Communications, Video Conferencing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Aloha from London, Washington, Seattle, Auckland… Live via IP, connecting an audience to the world.

“Live via satellite” became the catch-cry Australians used when something special overseas happened on TV.  It was innovative technology that broke down the distance barriers between us in Australia and the rest of the world.

In the 70‘s there was Elvis and “Aloha from Hawaii” and the Montreal Olympics. In the 80’s TV personality Don Lane talked live to prominent entertainers like Abba, Kiss and Robin Williams.  In the 90s local newsrooms crossed live to breaking stories in London and New York…

The funny thing is that today in the 21st century “Live via satellite” still resonates with Australians!

“Live via satellite” was to be the key line on an invitation being prepared for senior public servants to attend special briefings in Canberra.

Picture 1: A great conversation between two people; one in Canberra, the other in London. Live via IP network.

But we were using something far more mundane to link our audience live to overseas speakers – an IP network.  Yes, the same IP network we use every day for emails, paying bills and PC updates.

The agency working on the invite favoured “live via satellite.” In their minds it had much more pizzazz then “live via the IP network.”  I can relate to what they were saying, but a strong element of why we were using IP to link with overseas was to show:

  • How great a live high definition video conferencing is for face to face meetings
  • How easy it is to utilise your existing IP network for this great experience, something we do everyday

“Live via satellite” didn’t correctly describe what the audience was experiencing; here on stage was a face to face discussion with someone overseas. The same thing anyone could do from their own office.  They simply needed to book a video conference room at both locations, turn up at the designated time, press a button and have a great face to face meeting.  The next best thing to being there in person.

Picture 2: Sharing a great face to face conversation with an audience of 200 senior public servants in Canberra.

So what we were doing was embedding the “Live by satellite” feeling, but without the highly specialised TV crews, the TV studios and satellites.

It was also a lot easier to pull off than the live holograms we showed a few years earlier (see my earlier blog Much ado about holograms…).

Picture 3 – David Thodey on stage, Dr Hugh Bradlow on stage via hologram. Holograms used the same equipment, camera and network, but used very sophisticated staging, and remote studio.

We were using a lot of the same equipment, cameras and IP network as the live holograms, but without the very specialised hologram projection system in front of the audience.

Plus our remote speaker could walk into one of 500+ standard high definition conference rooms around the world and connect to our Canberra audience.  We didn’t need to setup a special all black hologram studio or have the remote speaker rehearse; a very important issue given there was no rehearsal time for some of our VIP world leaders.  They literally walked into a room in London, Washington and Chicago and started their presentation with our Canberra audience.

Picture 4: With some of our VIP speakers we didn’t have opportunities to rehearse; they just walked into a room convenient to their location and started their presentations. In this case from Chicago.

The only difference between this on stage experience and our day to day office experience was that we integrated our HD video conference unit into the audio visual systems in the venue.  On stage the HD video conference unit was designed for 2 – 3 participants at both ends; integrating into the venue AV allowed us to share this personal experience with a room of 200 participants.

Picture 5: taking a standard room based HD Video Conference unit and putting it on stage.

Picture 6: Integrating the HD Video Conference unit with the audio visual equipment so we could share the face to face experience with 200 attendees.

HD Video Conferencing on stage does miss some of the great spectacle of a live hologram.

But it missed nothing in the interaction between the on stage moderator in Canberra and our overseas speakers.  As an audience member I found some of the conversations riveting; loosing none of the immediacy of watching two people have a great conversation; one on stage in Canberra, one live via an IP network.

Picture 7: Another great face to face conversation, one person in Canberra, the other in Chicago. With 200 attendees sharing the experience.

Much like the old days, we were connecting overseas and something special was happening in front of me, but the technology was quite invisible to the experience; just what bringing people together should be like in the 21st century.

A very big acknowledgement to our partners and staff who helped put this together:

  • Staging Connections – who ran the entire infrastructure of the stage, lighting, projection and sound
  • Team Telstra – the Telstra staff from all across the organisation who helped make these briefings the success they were.
Posted in Collaboration, TelePresence, Telstra, Video Conferencing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lights, camera, action! From video conferencing to telepresence & what you can learn from TV.

A reflection on what works and what doesn’t in Video Conferencing

In 2008 we first opened the doors on Telstra’s Executive Briefing Centre in Melbourne, and a new network of high tech boardrooms across Australia.  In that time we have hosted over 16,000 meetings and briefings – helping customers understand the new levels of productivity and quality experiences that are available from having devices and applications work across fixed and mobile networks.

One of the most heavily utilised functions is video conferencing.

We were fortunate in being able to utilise a new generation of IP based High Definition video conferencing technologies.  It is truly a quantum leap from the older generation of equipment – not just the superior quality of images and sound, but equally important is the “one click” ability to quickly and confidently connect different locations together.

The idea of video conferencing is not new.  The first ideas of combining video and voice communications go back to 1912 with “Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone“, published by Grosset & Dunlap.

Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone – a science fiction novel as published in 1914 – postulated on modifying normal telephones that could display images transmitted by a third wire. Refer to Wikipedia

AT&T first demonstrated a prototype of a “Picturephone” at the 1964 World Fair.  Not long after three Picturephone booths were installed in Washington DC, New York, and Chicago, costs ranged from $16 to $27 for three minutes (that’s $118 to $200 in 2012 dollars!).

Since 1964 there have been many “false starts” to video collaboration.  In the 1990s many customers experienced ISDN video conferences; and have tales about meetings being long delayed or forced to voice only, due to the fickle nature of ISDN calling.  A study in the US suggested that that this older generation of equipment was being used as little as 15 hours per month during it’s peak.

But even though the move to IP based networks and equipment has resolved many of these issues I still feel there is a lot to learn about what makes a great meeting experience.

I believe that most people think about what they see on the TV news as shaping their perception of a high quality video conferencing.  An example of ABC’s Lateline highlights the quality experience taking place between 2 locations.  What you as the audience experiences is the quality lighting, sound and alignment.  What you don’t see is the small army of people working behind the scenes to pull this off.

Picture 2: A three way interview on ABC Lateline. Perfect conditions, lighting & alignment. A lot of work went into making the audience at home part of this experience.

Contrast the TV studio above with the video conference below. If you look very closely you may see people sitting around both tables.  The resolution of the TV studio and the video conference are the same 1080p – high definition.

So what is different?


Picture 3: Spot the participants! A HD Video Conference with poor layout.

The short answer is that it has nothing to do with the technology, and everything to do with the layout of the space, or room design.

  • In the TV studio there is a small army of professionals working to carefully choreograph and finesse the best experience for the audience.
  • The video conference is being held in regular meeting room; your standard board rooms with large tables.  Great for face to face conversations across the table, but users have to drive the technology to zoom into speakers in remote rooms

My experience is that Australian’s like sitting as far away from screens as possible (back of the bus syndrome) and that most participants want to participate in a meeting, not become the de facto TV production team aligning cameras.

This highlights the difference between Video Conferencing and TelePresence.  Technically they are exactly the same, cameras, microphones, screens… you can even call between a Video Conference room and a TelePresence room.  On the one IP network, everything simply becomes a telephone number to call.

I think of TelePresence as being the “high watermark” of video conferencing.  Or to use my earlier analogy TelePresence is video conferencing and putting it in a special “TV Studio” environment where it is impossible to have a bad experience:

  • HD screens working together as one window to the far side room
  • HD cameras with a fixed focus and directed lighting
  • You seated and perfectly positioned for the “head and shoulders” view

Everyone appears life-sized and in perfect clarity – the technology becoming invisible to the face to face experience.

Picture 4: An example of Telepresence – the Polycom RPX room at the Telstra Executive Briefing Centre connecting through to an equivalent room in Sydney – the technology becomes invisible to the experience of having a face to face meeting.

Whereas in regular video conferencing rooms it is the users who have to continually drive the technology to have participants in the perfect “head and shoulders” view.  That’s not to say there is anything wrong with regular HD video conferencing rooms, just that in a TelePresence room a lot of flexibility has been removed in order to maximise the quality of the experience.

Its a bit like comparing a DSLR camera with an old fashioned photo-booth:

  • with the DSLR camera an expert can take some amazing photos, but most users don’t know how, or have the interest or time to learn
  • the photo-booth takes great portrait photos and can only do this one thing well.

Then there is the rise of video enabled smartphones, tablets and laptops…  Some question whether the age of “big iron” video collaboration is over… but I will cover this in another blog.

Posted in Collaboration, TelePresence, Telstra, Unified Communications, Video Conferencing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Much ado about holograms, collaboration & meetings.

Reflections on the viability of Next Generation Collaboration, & Briefings using holograms

Picture 1 – David Thodey on stage, Dr Hugh Bradlow on stage via hologram

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C Clarke’s third law of prediction

It’s unusual for Telstra’s Enterprise & Government group to singularly capture the attention of the nation about the possibilities of technology.  Yet that’s what happened when we featured a live hologram projection as part of our regular executive briefings across six capital cities.

The future of collaboration and remote meetings is clearly here and now; but you may want to weigh up practicalities with the overall impact on the audience.  This blog will outline what we did and how we did it.

What we did:

In front of each audience a life sized, high definition image of Dr Hugh Bradlow, Telstra’s Chief Technology Officer, would “beam in”, as though he was on stage interacting with our opening keynote speaker, David Thodey, Group Managing Director of Telstra Enterprise & Government.

Hugh would then go on to present his PowerPoint presentation even though he was thousands of kilometres away in our purpose built studio in Melbourne.

The media coverage was unprecedented, the story ran on the nightly news of all the major TV networks.  It was picked up by newspapers in Poland, UK, India, Korea, and the US; and fiercely discussed on blog sites across the world. It was perhaps the first time that my mum could actually understand what I did at work.

The effect worked so well we repeated it one more time with our sister organisation TelstraClear in New Zealand, allowing an audience in Auckland to have a live session from TV celebrity Rove McManus, “beaming out” of our hologram studio in Melbourne.

Many months later it’s is quite flattering that customers visiting Telstra’s Executive Briefing Centres still clearly recall these briefings, and many have enquired about possibilities of using a similar approach for their events.

This was all part of an ongoing dialogue with our customers about how the evolution of networks, devices and applications, are enabling new levels of productivity through the delivery of much richer experiences, collaboration, and interactions between people.

One the best examples of this new style of working is Telepresence which combines Telstra’s Next IP broadband network, high definition video conferencing equipment, and an array of audio visual equipment that gives the appearance that someone is present at a another location.  Its one of the most heavily utilised rooms in Telstra’s Executive Briefing Centre, and it never fails to impress people visiting the centre for briefings.

Picture 2: An example of Telepresence – the Polycom RPX room at the Telstra Executive Briefing Centre connecting through to an equivalent room in Sydney. Demonstrating what we at Telstra call ‘Next Dimension Working’ – a new and more productive way of working using networks, devices and applications to achieve better outcomes and an enhanced user experience.

How we did it:

To achieve a live hologram affect like in Auckland for example, all we had to do was repurpose the technologies and services that makes up a Telepresence experience, and change the way the image is captured and projected at both ends.   The key to this was moving from the usual “head and shoulders” view of Telepresence and going to a full frontal view of the presenter.

That may sound quite simple, whereas a regular Telepresence session takes place at the press of a button, for each hologram session there was a dedicated team of 11 people working behind the scenes, co-ordinating the staging, projection, lighting, video mixing, and network performance.  That doesn’t include the team that also built the significant stage environment at both ends.

In front of the audience the actual holographic effect was achieved with a Musion Eyeliner video projection screen; a giant purpose built plastic foil that stretches across the entire stage.  For each session it took a team of experts hours and hours to finely tune this foil / screen until it becomes invisible against the appropriate lighting.  From the audience’s view it is like a giant head-up display in an upmarket car or aircraft cockpit – with Hugh’s image appearing to “float” in space.

The illusion of depth is achieved by having a very faint light wash the black curtains a few meters behind Hugh’s image.  I suspect it’s the different focal lengths of looking at Hugh’s image versus the soft light behind that is tricking the eye into seeing depth.

Picture 3: David Thodey on stage (centre) talking with Paul Geason’s hologram (right) during the Telstra Executive Briefing in Sydney. Note the blue “wash” at the back of the stage, helping “lift” the images of Paul and the Telstra logo in the eyes of the audience

The Musion system has been before in many theatrical events and launches; with pre-recorded content being projected across the foil.

Picture 4: Side view of the Musion Eyeliner projection system as used for a recorded performance by rap artist Tupac at Coachella 2012 (see video below). Note the audience does not see the video reflected off the floor. Source: International Business Times

Picture 4: Side view of the Musion Eyeliner projection system as used for a recorded performance by rap artist Tupac at Coachella 2012 (see video below). Note the audience does not see the video reflected off the floor. Source: International Business Times

What was different for Telstra’s briefings was the use of a live HD image coming in from across the country.  A live projection had been done only once before – for a launch between India and the US.  We performed these live briefings 6 times within Australia plus a session between Australia and New Zealand.

While the impact to the audience was stunning, the affect up on the stage, and back in the Melbourne Studio was far different:

  • David and Hugh’s image were very carefully positioned on the stage to appear as natural as possible;
  • Plasma displays were aligned, to make it easy for David to appear to be directly looking at Hugh’s face – but out of view from the audience,
  • Cameras were pointed at David and the audience to help give Hugh a feel of what was happening back in the venue.
  • Separate audio lines linked both sites to co-ordinate timing for the staff behind the scenes

There probably is a way to make this staging permanent and cut down on the cost and number of staff behind the scenes to make this work.

However the effect is still asymmetrical!

By that I mean the people on the stage (real and virtual) have to work much harder at the effect than those in the audience.  Rehearsals and familiarisation is the key.  I suspect it would be a tall order for a someone to walk into a Hologram studio cold and give a good performance.   CNN came to a similar conclusion a few weeks ago.

Then again Telstra was very careful in saying this wasn’t a product for sale, more a prototype of where this kind of technology is heading; and the kinds of interaction that the next generation of networks, devices and applications can deliver.

This is quite different from what we know as Telepresence today.  Here the effect is symmetrical, everyone in one room has a similar experience to everyone in the other room.  Then again Telepresence is good for meetings of 1 – 20 people in each room.  It will be interesting to see if a Telepresence style of solution develops for major presentations with large audiences.

Picture 5: An example of a “symmetrical” experience, on a Cisco TelePresence 3000. All the users share a similar experience (presence) of all the other users, regardless of their location.

A very big acknowledgement to our partners and staff who helped put this together:

  • Staging Connections – who ran the entire infrastructure of the stage, lighting, projection and sound and did it time and time again around the country like clockwork
  • Musion Australia – who spent hours and hours at each location painstakingly fine tuning each foil to be perfect
  • Team Telstra – the Telstra staff from all across the organisation who helped make these briefings the success they were.

2012 Postscript

This blog was first published on Telstra Research Insights, 7 AUGUST 2008.  

In 2012 the same holographic projection system still gains global attention: see Tupac Hologram at Coachella.  Most of these are pre recorded (obviously for deceased musicians…).

HD Video and holograms generates monthly enquiries in 2012 four years after Telstra’s original events.  But this combination is still theatrical rather than practical – that is the “asymmetric experience” requires some participants to be willing to “perform” for the sake of the audience.  See TelePresence for a practical tool for presentations and day to day business.


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An enterprise in Second Life. Lessons from a virtual world.

When I first started demonstrating Second Life to Telstra’s Enterprise & Government customers, I usually got either blank stares, and that look you get when people think you are crazy.

But demonstrate Second Life showing its use for collaboration or rapid prototyping of floor layouts… and people get it; Internet based virtual reality has a significant role to play in online experiences.

What is Second Life?

Second Life is an internet based virtual world.  It has many parallels to the way you use the web:

  • You download the free Second Life client – think of it like a browser
  • You set up a free account and logon – like many social networking sites
  • You can customise your look – also like many social networking sites
  • You move from island to island – just like moving between pages on the web
  • You can see when your friends are online and chat – both voice and text – like many IM services
  • You can see, experience and move around content – like Quicktime, Flash, Java and many other Virtual Reality environments
  • You can create your own island / content – just like you can on the web

Second Life is not really that different from many other Internet services; but its the way it integrates all these elements in an immersive environment that really gets your attention.

The most significant difference about Second Life is the avatar (you) walks, flies, drives… through virtual space, experiences content, and interacts with other avatars (other users) often all at the same time.  Whereas a regular website is a very lonely place (even Facebook and Twitter) – you may be one of thousands / millions looking at the same page at the same time, but you would never know it.

Second Life is not the only Internet based Virtual World.  There are a number of worlds with different attributes and intents (see wikipedia).  But Second Life was revolutionary in recognising and protecting the copyright of content developed by Second Life users (also referred to as Second Life residents).

Second Life has also been very good at promoting itself – an exploding number of users – now over 12 million users [2008] who are spending increasing number of hours online, buying and selling content and services developed by each other – 16 million transactions a month.

You know something is going mainstream when its covered on the ABC’s Four Corners (March 19 2007), and becomes part of the plot of popular TV dramas like Law & Order SVU, and Dame Edna starts espousing Second Life in her act.

But you would be excused for thinking you have seen this all before – the hype surrounding Second Life has a very similar feel to hype surrounding the dot-com bubble in 2001.  Its no wonder that many companies are circling Second Life – trying to figure out if its an opportunity or a risk – being motivated by greed or fear (see Wired).

A Web 2.0 technology that you can see, hear and “feel”

Second Life makes much more sense when you think of it as a tool for rich interaction and communications with other users.  You can get a glimpse of this phenomena most nights (or days) sitting by the BBQ outside the Billabong Bar – an authentic outback pub at THE POND, part of Big Ponds presence (island) on Second Life.

Much like your real life local pub, numerous characters gather at this virtual pub after 5pm for a chat (voice and text), a dance, and who knows what else!

Picture 1: A quiet one at the Billabong Bar – chatting with the “locals”

The “locals” tend to be logged on from all parts of Australia – city and regional.  You also get a quick sense of the international nature of Second Life with many users logging in from Europe and North America; I recently met someone from Vietnam!

The propensity for users to stay online is amazing, spending hours chatting away to others and genuinely helping one another.  On Second Life you get a tangible sense that the Internet is a true global community with multiple languages and time zones – just as your European friends start logging off, your North American friends start coming online.  I always feel very inadequate struggling with English – while many SL users are multilingual.

Second Life is a an excellent example of a Web 2.0 application – its quite easy to develop and sustain relationships with users around the world you may never physically meet.

From fantasy living to realistic applications: collaboration

In August 2007 I “attended” my first IT symposium conducted inside Second Life; hosted by the AIIA (Australian Information Industry Association) on their island.

In an imaginary / fantasy world, the thing that first struck me about this meeting was how normal it felt.  Here was a virtual room full of people sitting at a computer somewhere on the net, like me.   “In world” avatars were seated,  listening to the presenter, and watching powerpoint slides on the screen.

In a virtual world where avatars never tire and can fly, why would they all be seated? Why were they all sitting at the back of the room?

Picture II: Attending and an “in world” symposium hosted by the AIIA – notice everyone sitting at the back of the room – just like in real life!

Attendees could ask questions – by text or voice, and hear the moderator’s answers.  You could have confidential side chats with others sitting next to you.

Once you get beyond the “cartoon” nature of Second Life you start to realise that this environment shares many characteristics of dedicated collaboration environments.

Internet tools such as Webex, Live Meeting and Click to Meet (amongst others) provide very similar outcomes – enabling users located anywhere on the Internet to come together, see and hear a presentation, and then ask questions… collaborating on a document.

But all these professional tools are applications designed around publishing and conferencing.  You don’t really get the sense of sharing an experience like you do in Second Life.

Picture III: Attending an online meeting with a typical browser based collaboration tool. Compare the “seating chart” – bottom left hand side – simulating a normal meeting environment, with that of the Second Life meeting on Picture II.

Now I am not unique in recognising this possibility.  Organisations like Cisco, IBM, NASA,  ABC and others regularly host similar sessions.

Often its about the convenience of attending a meeting while sitting at your desk, but in a post September 11 world it also about running sessions without the security hassles.   It marks an interesting change on Second Life as some users eschew the fantasy aspects of this virtual world and blatantly provide details of their real life identity.

From fantasy living to realistic applications: prototyping & stakeholder management

Another application we stumbled across was using Second Life to test out new floor plans for our updated Telstra Experience Centres in Sydney and Melbourne.  Architects have many tools that allow you render 2D designs into 3D animations, but they tend to be expensive to use, and only provide a fixed path with which to navigate through a building.

With little effort we were able build life like versions of both centres in only a few days, and update the textures with images of the real materials within a week (floors, walls, ceilings…).  Plus we had the flexibility of walking through the layout with others while they were sitting at their desks in remote locations.

Its certainly changed the minds of our architects and building services people.  It also greatly sped up decision making on all those little things people get passionate about when it comes to building.  Its so much easier agreeing on something when you can see it in front of you together – whether its the real world or a virtual world

Picture IV: Helping people see the lay out of the Telstra Experience Centre – in Second Life (left) and in Sydney (Right)

The possibilities here are endless.  Especially prototyping fitouts of new environments and showing stakeholders various scenarios on the flow of customers and staff.  Suddenly all kinds of customers I brief start making notes and requesting followup meetings. 

The above short video was filmed “in-world” in Second Life, showing the prototype of the Telstra Experience Centre now in operation at 400 George Street Sydney.  This virtual reality version of the Telstra Experience Centre was built using the same plans as the real facility with only minor tweaks (like no ceiling, so you can see the layout from overhead).

Is Second Life the answer?

Getting established on Second Life is quite time consuming.  Assuming you dont have firewall issues and you are a complete beginner it may take a few hours to get started on Second Life (downloading the client, establishing an account, choosing your avatar, navigating the orientation island, finding where you need to go…).  Users have to be patient and persistent.

Second Life is moving towards having an open source model; which hopefully will open up all kinds of possibilities for embedding virtual reality environments in more convenient formats. Perhaps built into regular websites, where you can deal with other users and support staff to get a better experience of what you are after.

Either way you are going to see a lot more virtual reality when you get online.

2012 Postscript

This blog was first published on Telstra Research Insights, 19 March 2008. 

Popularity in Second Life has rapidly waned; a combination of numerous moral crises, and fashion the “flares” and “shoulder pads” of the Internet Age.

However in 2012 the concept of virtual worlds in business and their immersive environments are still in play; but from within a browser and without much of the “friction” in getting started on Second Life.

Check out:

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Living, working & playing in the 21ST Century

One of the great luxuries of my job at Telstra was being able to dabble in new technologies and explore the possible applications for Enterprise & Government customers.

What made my job easy was the growing trend of consumer innovations spilling across into the enterprise space.  Over the last decade smartphones, presence, video, social media and even blogs have sent many enterprise CIOs (Chief Information Officers) scrambling to keep ahead of increasingly savvy endusers.

But for every innovation that makes it, there are many more that get consigned to Wikipedia as a footnote of history. Read on…

Posted in Collaboration, Presence, Smartphones, Tablets, Unified Communications, Video Conferencing, Web | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment