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

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that, by leaving the Web and video connection on or available—even between meetings—people can stop by the cart during the day, check whether Robertson is available to chat, and have impromptu conversations with him from 3,000 miles away.

“The biggest thing was to make it as appliance-like as possible,” Venolia says. “Simplicity and reliability is what was key.” In other words, no fancy robotics or control software that could break or make it hard to stay connected. The point is that by giving their remote colleague an actual physical presence—the cart and computer contraption—they encouraged team members to have more interactions with him during the day. Tang calls this a “social catalyst.” (Inevitably, people have adorned the cart with personal effects like hats, and have given it pet names, like “George-in-a-Box.”)

It was promising enough that the group decided to study whether it could help other teams at Microsoft. The short answer is yes. In tests done over six weeks across four product groups, team members had higher self-reported ratings of social connectedness while using the ESP system than before or after. This was true across a number of activities like software engineering, architecture, and planning. What’s more, the product groups rated meetings and other daily interactions with remote colleagues as more effective with ESP. (Microsoft chief software architect Ray Ozzie and at least one other senior management exec have tried out the system, so if it really works, it might have a shot at being implemented within the company.)

In the end, though, it’s still a research prototype. So where is the real business impact?

Tang says it starts by saving on the number of business trips to headquarters a company might need to spend on remote workers. More broadly, the technology helps create “social capability and trust and fidelity” that allows groups to get work done more efficiently, he says. And the experience of working and living with this sort of audio/video system has led to a better understanding of what software platforms Microsoft needs to build for hi-fidelity business communications. “We hope it pays off for Microsoft as a software company,” he says.

Indeed, as the business case for this type of technology continues to build, Microsoft is sure to see increased competition in the field. Venolia says, “Where Cisco and HP are about connecting places, ESP is about connecting a person—no matter where that person is—to where they need to be, no matter where that is.”

Ultimately, though, she emphasizes the bigger idea behind the project. “The fundamental thing we learned is, we could develop technology with the idea of strengthening social relationships,” Venolia says. “Those social relationships are how business gets done. This isn’t talking about bandwidth and video quality. This is about augmenting human relationships. That is really the business opportunity.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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