Return of the Porta-People

In a new take on teleconferencing technologies, a rotating display holds forth at the weekly meeting.

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.

With Sun’s prototype “porta-person,” someone working remotely can be “present” at a meeting as a box with a display showing either his or her actual face or a line drawing of a generic face. Stereo microphones allow the remote worker to hear the direction from which a person in the room is speaking; the remote worker can then swivel the box to “face” that person and speak to him or her through stereo speakers.

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.

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.”

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