Time for the Meeting
Can high-tech and high-style coexist in the conference room?
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 5/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
Consider this scene from a marketing spot: A Hollywood-handsome architect shifts impatiently as his black cab lurches through London traffic. His cell phone pings. "I'm bringing the blueprints just in case they need to see them," he says in a clipped James Bond accent. "Am I meeting St. Paul after Tokyo?" He dashes into an office, where a comely Miss Moneypenny type takes his jacket and satchel. "My pleasure," she purrs. Then she ushers him into a paneled room where his client is waiting patiently, arms folded on the conference table—or make that half a table.
The client is in Tokyo, in a room that's the Siamese twin of the London one, down to the carpet, walls, and lighting. Thanks to the latest high-tech marvel, immersive tele-presence, the table halves merge on-screen. Participants appear life-size and three-dimensional, sound like they're a few feet away, and can even make eye contact.
The system in the Bond-esque scenario, Tandberg's Telepresence T3, represents the cutting edge in we're-all-here audiovisual experiences—more sound stage than conference room. Tandberg is duking it out with Cisco, Teliris, and half a dozen others to rule what is predicted to become a billion-dollar industry by 2013, as technology allows companies to expand their global reach while reducing their carbon footprint and travel expenses and helping employees maintain a work-life balance. Hardly a week goes by that one of these companies doesn't up the ante with a new application: virtual whiteboards, seamless screens, voice-activated camera shots.
To facilitate the illusion that everyone is sitting in the same room, inhaling the same oxygen—even though, for some attendees, it may be the middle of the night—requires more than precisely calibrated cameras, mirrors, screens, and programming. Every room in an immersive 3-D tele-presence network has to be a clone, built to the manufacturer's specifications. That means no windows, no distracting patterns, no identity. The technology is the room, which can make it somewhat sterile.
However, as more clients request dedicated tele-presence rooms, designers are finding ways to tweak the Dilbert aesthetic. Installing two Cisco TelePresence suites for HSBC in London, Woods Bagot "didn't squirrel them away in a corner," principal Simon Pole says. "We tried to make them a feature although, looking at them from the outside, you wouldn't know what they were." Wrapped in black glass, they're surrounded by office space, a flexible meeting zone, a break-out area, a café, and an open staircase that links to other management floors. Mounted on the outside of these black glass cubes, 8-foot-high LCD screens connect you with HSBC offices around the world—all this while you take in a view stretching down the river Thames.
Cisco recommends a palette of beiges, but Woods Bagot got away with specifying off-white at HSBC. On the other hand, when a Gensler client plopped Cisco's TelePresence System 3000 room into an office plan at the last minute, there was no time for principal Brian Berry to switch out the standard-issue pendant fixtures for the more contemporary ones elsewhere.
Tandberg just won a Norwegian Design Council award for the T3's Scandinavian-style turnkey room, a collaboration between an in-house team and Knud Holscher Design, founded by a former partner of Arne Jacobsen. Each 16 ½-by-23-foot space contains a table with built-in touch-screens tilted to keep views unobstructed. The table legs are stuffed with cables connected to a bank of HD screens via aluminum raceways along the floor. Pendant fixtures and spotlights are positioned to bounce light off the matte gray tabletop and hit users under the chin, eliminating glare and under-eye shadows. Acoustical batting hides behind two walls veneered in walnut—a birch prototype was deemed "too IKEA," product-design manager Torkel Mellingen says. The other two walls serve as the on-camera backdrop, illuminated glass in a blue inspired by a Maserati ad shown during the charrette. In contrast to this saturated shade, people look more 3-D.
A tele-presence suite costs about $300,000 and requires at least one doppelganger. With a price that high, some designers are "future-proofing" projects by including techno-ready spaces but not actually installing systems. As the price comes down, the suites' aesthetics will almost certainly evolve. Perhaps that's when global design firms will adopt tele-presence themselves, having observed how much it can expedite work flow.
In the meantime, firms are experimenting with stopgaps. HOK employed virtual whiteboards to help employees around the world collaborate on the 6.5 million-square-foot campus of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, delivering it in record time. Now HOK is marrying that technology with ultrahigh-resolution videoconferencing in seven offices.
Almost all the offices of Woods Bagot have twin-screen HD videoconferencing and personal tele-presence systems. This year, the board of directors started supplementing its quarterly in-person meetings with monthly videoconferences. The firm expects to save $250,000 annually in plane tickets, hotel rooms, etc.
By the time that design firms upgrade to 3-D tele-presence, the question of background colors may well be moot. Designers are already experimenting with TV-style green-screen technology for backdrops. With the touch of a button, you could create the illusion of having a meeting anywhere—atop Chichen Itza, inside Mauna Loa, on Jupiter. Now, about that time difference between Dubayy and Dubuque.
Opposite, from top: Tandberg's T3 turnkey room, designed by an in-house team and Knud Holscher Design. A schematic showing the visual field for cameras and touch-screens, the latter set into tabletops at angles that reduce glare and increase privacy.
From top: The T3 touch-screen with integrated keyboard to reduce clutter. LifeSize Communications's LifeSize Room high-definition videoconferencing system with 65-inch flat screen in a conference room at Gensler in New York. The Cisco TelePresence 1000 room's virtual meeting table for up to four participants.
From top: The Teliris InterACT TouchTable, which allows documents, videos, and PowerPoint presentations to be shared instantaneously between tele-presence rooms. A Woods Bagot global work session using Tandberg's MXP 8000 twin-screen HD videoconferencing. Triple HD screens, the Express Telepresence from Teliris. One of HOK's "advanced collaboration rooms," which combine Cisco's TelePresence System 1000 technology with PolyVision's Thunder virtual flip chart.