Although I'm not a fan of the word "telepresence" -- for me it conjures up strange images of Teletubbies and seances -- a Wall Street executive told me last week that his firm was taking a serious look at telepresence, meaning a type of presence awareness technology. So when HP invited me to a telepresence demo they were running uptown this afternoon, I accepted. I was a bit surprised to be ushered into a soundproof studio and sit facing a wall of high-definition monitors broadcasting live images of HP executives in London, Georgia, and California, all staring straight at me (and vice versa). I was filled with questions (why did I wear this outfit? why did I agree to a videoconferencing demo when I have 17,000 things to do back at the office?), but I have to admit the technology was impressive. The video quality and display were extremely clear -- the California executives placed a bar chart under a document camera and I could read very small numbers on it. The sound and video were perfectly synchronized -- a welcome change from the last time I saw a videoconferencing demo, in which the voices and moving mouths were comically (and distractingly) misaligned. Several people could also talk at once in different locations and all be heard.People at up to four locations can meet up using this HP Halo Collaboration Studio, for which HP provides, sets up, and hosts all the equipment, including soundproofing, large wall-mounted monitors, video cameras and a document camera, a Video Exchange Network, a conference table with networking cable running through the table legs and embedded microphones, Herman Miller Aeron chairs (to make a four-hour meeting ergonomically correct) with no arms (to encourage people to lean in) and even benches for extra people to sit on in the back of the room.
The only downside that I could see to this state-of-the-art conferencing solution was the $329,000+ price tag and $18,000 monthly fee, which includes technical support. However, HP executives said it is possible for conferences decked out with less-expensive videoconferencing equipment from Tandberg, a partner, to be linked in with the Halo setup, although they warned that there would be a noticable degradation of video quality coming from the Tandberg site. Some global companies like ABN Amro, which recently bought 12 Halo studios, are using this to facilitate meetings among regional offices and with partners.