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

4/12/10Follow @gthuang

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 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 the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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