The hallmark of the Sun gadget is that it’s something an individual can use to join a group meeting cheaply and with existing technology. It represents a practical contribution to using technology for enhancing social interactions. “It’s a design philosophy,” Yankelovich says. “We’re trying to support hybrid uses. There are very few things that are desktop to conference room.”
The porta-person takes advantage of advances in voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) and increased bandwidth to people’s homes, says Chris Schmandt, director of the speech interface group at MIT’s Media Lab, who has been doing related work as far back as 1982. “The idea of indicators of presence and of stereo audio are themselves not particularly new,” Schmandt says. “What is new is that now IP-based networks are omnipresent and can do a pretty good job of carrying the voice traffic. Doing stereo over conventional telephone channels is difficult, but over a packet network it becomes very easy. And it’s not just stereo. I believe that probably more important is the increased bandwidth. So with the maturing of VoIP, it is fitting for Sun to be reinventing these various aspects of audio conferencing.”
At Sun alone, the gadget could have substantial use. Of Sun’s 38,000 employees, at least 14,000 work at home some or all of the time. In 70 percent of the company’s meetings, at least one person isn’t physically present, and the drawbacks of today’s technologies have hit home. “The problem of remote workers is an issue that Sun faces on a daily basis,” Yankelovich says. The porta-person is already used by researchers involved in the project; Sun is planning to test it more widely within the company before deciding whether to commercialize it.
“Nicole is obviously dealing with a big problem, motivated by Sun’s own use of the technology; it addresses their work practices directly,” says Schmandt. “It is an important and growing problem, not just because more people are working out of homes or at odd hours so they can raise their kids or save a few bucks on gas. Organizations are increasingly global, which means people spread across space and time zones.”