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Anybody who sits through staff meetings knows that the person who has to call in often has trouble hearing everyone or knowing who is speaking. Sometimes he or she becomes the forgotten colleague, holding the line as the room empties. If researchers at Sun have their way, the work-at-home or overseas colleague will become an empowered “porta-person,” with a physical place at the table.

At Sun’s laboratory in Burlington, MA, a porta-person recently stood in for Jonathan Kaplan, a Sun researcher who was at home in New Haven, CT. On a chair at the conference table sat a white paperboard box, with a tablet PC as a screen, and stereo microphones and speakers affixed to its sides. The screen displayed live video of Kaplan’s face. But if he had lacked sufficient bandwidth to transmit video–or if he had still been wearing his pajamas–he could have switched to a simple line drawing of a male face, with lips that moved as he spoke.

The stereo microphones and state-of-the-art audio let Kaplan hear people from the general direction from which they spoke–just as he would have if he had been sitting there in the room. Back in New Haven, Kaplan’s home computer displayed a panoramic view–assembled from the camera’s images–of the conference room’s occupants and a clear view of materials displayed on the conference-room wall.

Kaplan used his computer mouse to click on the portion of the panorama where he wanted to look; this made the box turn left or right. His voice could then project from the box’s speakers toward the person he was addressing. The box whirred and swiveled, and the animated face stared blankly while its line lips moved. But there was no denying that the box had a presence. “It’s definitely a much more ‘present’ feeling,” Kaplan says. “Being able to move the box lets you grab people’s attention, which is very hard to do when you are just on the phone.”

The box demanded respect–and received it. “We are trying to give those remote people a real tangible presence in the meeting room,” says Nicole Yankelovich, a principal investigator at Sun who led development of the porta-person as an as-yet-unpublished outgrowth of the company’s collaborative-environments research. Otherwise, “people are second-class citizens; they get forgotten about.”

To be sure, academic groups and companies from Microsoft to IBM have been developing prototypes and selling teleconferencing systems for years. High-end corporate systems broadcast images from one conference room to another, for display in each other’s offices. And anyone can buy simple webcam systems, such as iChat, to communicate with others via desktop computers or laptops. And at the end of the extreme are the videoconferencing robots, such as Pebbles, that roll around the office.

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Credit: Sun Microsystems Laboratories

Tagged: Business

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