I had my first encounter with a Cisco TelePresence video conferencing system yesterday. Holy cow, the future of video conferencing is here, right now.
If you have been around any number of large U.S. corporations in the past 10 years or so, you have likely run into a number of largely unused video conferencing systems. I've seen a variety of the old PictureTel systems (like this one)in three different companies, and from what I have seen they tend to sit silent and unused in the corner of conference rooms, taking up space and gathering dust. The user experience of those systems was just horrible. The user interface always seemed confusing. The video lag disconcerting. And, frankly, viewing a whole table full of people on a 26-inch television screen really wasn't "just like being there." It was a horrible experience, and those systems didn't add much of value over just the phone connection.
To be fair to PictureTel, they have been acquired by Polycom, and I'm sure they must have really nice, high end video conferencing too. But my experience was with the Cisco system. The system I used looks exactly like this:
That photo really doesn't even do it justice. The whole experience has "wow" written all over it. I'd love to know who was in charge of the overall experience design, because they did an outstanding job.
The primary user interface is the phone you see on the table. Turning the entire system on is as simple as two touches on the touch screen - one touch to open the phone directory, and a second to dial the remote location. When you dial... ring, and then *bam*, it's on. The video screens are turned on, the cameras are turned on, the audio is on. It's beautiful.
What is so compelling is the people "across the table" from you are life size. There's something just so compelling about that. And the detail is amazing - that's what high def gets you. And absolutely no video lag. And, of course, perfectly color balanced cameras. It all adds up.
The audio, too, is just so well done. In the photo you can see the microphones, which are embedded into the table top - no moving them around, no messy wires. The speakers are embedded in the area below the video monitors, and there are three speakers - one below each monitor. When the guy on the right side is speaking, you hear his voice from the right speaker. Likewise, the woman on the left is heard from the left speaker, and those in the center from the center speaker. The directional audio cue is really effective.
There are a ton of other little details in the design. Like how the physical table in the room is actually a full oval, and the monitors are butted up against it. This helps create a nearly seamless visual flow from the physical table to the video table. It's a beautiful touch that shows an attention to design detail.
You can see the shared presentation area in the picture above too - look below the center video monitor and you can see a slide being projected (ah, they should have had the laptop showing that slide too, but what do you want for a marketing photo?). Putting the presentation area down there was a brilliant thought. Sure, looks obvious after the fact, but I can imagine that it wasn't easy to stumble upon that solution.
I applaud whoever was responsible for the design. They paid attention to experience, and thought about the details. Nicely done.