How a Business Can Span the Globe and Stay Close-Knit: Microsoft’s “Telepresence” Project

Stop me if this sounds familiar. You work in a tight-knit team that has one or two colleagues who are located in a different office—across the street, across the state, or across the country. You’d like to communicate with them more regularly, but phone calls, e-mails, and video conferences have to do. Inevitably, you feel like you (and they) miss out on some day-to-day interactions that help all of you stay fully connected to the company’s goals and culture.

Microsoft feels your pain—and its researchers are trying to do something about it. That’s why a group from Microsoft Research, based in Redmond, WA, is presenting a paper tomorrow at CHI 2010, the big international conference on human-computer interaction in Atlanta. The team, led by senior researchers Gina Venolia and John Tang, has developed a prototype system that gives a satellite colleague a “telepresence” not just in meetings but in the daily workflow of the hub office. They pull this trick with basically a laptop, speakerphone, and webcams on a cart, plus software to coordinate it all. Their project is called “Embodied Social Proxy,” or ESP.

OK, it’s a pretty jargony name, but it addresses a real and growing need in companies that have satellite workers or that expand to new geographies. The researchers have tested the prototype in four different product groups at Microsoft in addition to their own research group. They’re reporting that it increased the “attention and affinity” of the hub towards the satellite, and that it improved the interpersonal social connections between team members. (Of course, this might be difficult to quantify—more on that below.)

In this globalized era in which teams are being spread over long distances and “virtual” businesses, a number of tech giants are trying to help companies stay culturally tight-knit as they grow larger. The list includes Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Cisco, and Skype, who have led the way in developing technologies for Web conferencing and remote communications. A whole slew of startups are working in related sectors such as social business software (like Jive in Portland, OR) and online project management (like Smartsheet and LiquidPlanner in the Seattle area).They all share the goal of boosting productivity in the face of complexity. Recently, notable technology and business leaders Kelly Jo MacArthur and Stephen Wolfram have emphasized the importance of remote communications in running an organization.

Embodied Social Proxy (courtesy of Microsoft Research)

The Microsoft project builds on years of social science and communications research. It also seems decidedly old-school and low-tech. That is part of what makes it interesting, as a complement to social-media efforts to improve business collaboration (including Microsoft’s relatively new FUSE Labs led by Lili Cheng). Microsoft’s ESP effort began in 2008 when Venolia and Tang’s colleague, principal researcher George Robertson, a co-author on the study, moved to Maine to work from home. The team decided to test out a system that was “as simple as possible, to fix what was most broken,” Venolia says.

That meant daily interactions and face-to-face contact. So the team assembled a PC, monitor, some decent wide-view cameras, and a speakerphone, and mounted them on a cart that could be wheeled into meeting rooms (see photo above), or left in a dedicated office space that has become Robertson’s de facto “office” in Redmond. In meetings, the Redmond team can see Robertson’s face at the table and hear his voice, and he can interact with people in the room by controlling different cameras that allow him to focus on a particular person, or a whiteboard, or slides. The most interesting thing is … Next Page »

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