Had my one year review at work last week. I met with my boss for an hour and we talked about what I was doing well and what I was doing poorly. I talk to him face to face a few times a week using video conferencing. I also have a mentor at Microsoft who helps me navigate the maze. He didn't have a web camera so I just had one sent to him so that it showed up on his desk one morning. I probably do two or three videos calls per day now.
I had a meeting this morning with six manager-types in a conference room and I finally felt like I was contributing and could be heard. I hate doing conference calls these days. You can't be heard, you're constantly asking "who is speaking?"
In the meeting today we used a Microsoft Roundtable for the meeting. In the last ten meetings I've asked all ten organizers to book a room with a Roundtable. Only two have. The belief is that it's hard to hook up, "I've never used it before," or just "I'll see what can we can do," then nothing.
They are SO easy to use. Literally you plug it into your laptop and start a LiveMeeting. That's it. The drivers were already included with Live Meeting so there's literally no setup time.
You can't believe (or maybe you can) how much better the experience is for me when we use this. The Roundtable stitches together 5 cameras at 15fps into a 1056x144 panorama that covers a full 360 degrees. It also has a 640x480 square "active speaker" video. The Roundtable knows where people are in the room physically based on sound and will automatically create a square video view (as if each person had their own personal camera) and will 'cut' between them keeping the active speaker in view. This totally removes the "who's speaking?" factor from meetings.
I'm going to continue to ask anyone who wants to include me in a meeting to book a room with a Roundtable. We've got at least one on each floor, sometimes two, in most buildings.
Microsoft's got internal chat through Office Communicator which I use to talk to all sorts of folks when email would be "too much." Communicator also acts as an global address book that lets me not only find out if someone is at their desk, but also when their next free block of time is as it's integrated into Exchange/Outlook. It also lets you "tag" someone if their presence changes - like if they've returned to their office.
I also use Communicator to make quick calls to folks in the office. If people configure it correctly, it'll call their desk phones and they won't know I'm calling from my PC.
One of the things that Live Meeting doesn't do easily is quick meetings using video with a bunch of folks that are located all over. For this I tend to use ooVoo. It's recently added 640x480 "High Quality" calls and unlike Skype, you don't need a Logitech special camera to do it. There's rumor (and a disabled menu item) that implies ooVoo will be going even higher-res, perhaps HD?
OoVoo does great through firewalls and most importantly lets me pull in folks from all over, a lot like iChat for the Mac. In fact, ooVoo is also cross-platform.
Often I've got to show my screen to someone I'm talking to. Live Meeting works for this, but it's a little heavy. I use both SharedView and CrossLoop, in that order. If SharedView fails to make it through the firewall (rarely happens) then I'll use CrossLoop. SharedView has the benefit that it supports sharing to up to 16 people and they just log in with their Live ID. CrossLoop is based on VNC and is a little slower to react, but I've never seen it not work. If you pay attention to the UI in CrossLoop and click "skip" at the right times, you can use it without creating an account. CrossLoop is great for fixing your parent's computer also.
Chris Sells (who also works remotely) and I have been brainstorming and prototyping ideas for smarter telepresence. Chris really wants a high-res camera with an optical zoom so he can see whiteboards.
Chris would be happy "without feet." He would like a computer/device/system that someone could pick up and take to a meeting - basically his disembodied virtual head - so he could participate in meetings.
I'd really like be able to "walk" into someone's office. Just pop in to see if they are there. I want to get involved in hallway conversations.
Chris and I had the opportunity to remotely drive/beta-test a Telepresence robot from RoboDynamics. They've built their software on .NET 3.0 and the robot runs XP.
It was pretty sweet. They've got a 26x Optical Zoom and pan/tilt/zoom on the camera. There's a screen for your "head" so that folks can recognize you as you wander around. I was able to walk all over their office. The control console includes sonar and bumpers so when I got close to bumping into the fridge in their office kitchen I could "see" the distance to the fridge and avoid it.
There's a lot to think about when it comes to letting a virtual beastie into your company. Is it on the network? Which network? What access? Who is it logged in as? What if it's stolen?
As I understand it, RoboDynamics is looking to raise another round of funding so if you know someone, give them a call. Their stuff is REALLY impressive and cleanly implemented. There's video of the robot in action below.
Microsoft's doing a lot around Robotics and Robotics Research. Hopefully there will be a real telepresence solution soon for remote workers. Maybe some Microsoftie will read this blog and let me beta test a robot or future telepresence platform...hint hint.
Cisco has a telepresence platform that's pretty slick. Basically it's a really high res (1080p), really high framerate, low compression, 65-inch flat-screen or series of flat-screens.
If I could have an office with one of these screens set up, then folks could just pop by my office to say Hi. I could have a "portal" between my house and work up on campus in Redmond.
I thought I might be able to cobble something together with Skype or Office Communicator, maybe LiveMeeting, and some automation APIs. I could get a large monitor from Costco, maybe a no-name-brand 42" screen.
However, the bosses nixed buying the screens. It's funny, it costs about $250 to fly me up there, plus maybe $200 for a few nights in a hotel. If I went up just four times, that would be enough to by two 42" LCDs. Then I could just get a few PCs and I'd be in business.
The things that's been taking me the most time is:
I am absolutely convinced that video conferencing builds relationships almost as much as showing up in person. If you've got the bandwidth to spare, talking to someone in F2F (face to face) via webcam conveys way more information than a phone call. Also, using a 640x480 webcam and software is a breath of fresh air when compared to the video conferencing that you may have used in the past. Another few years and we'll have clear 720p or greater, commodity video conferencing.
Do you work from home? What tools to you use to manage your remote life? What tools would you like to use?
Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. I am a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.