Ideo's David Kelley and Steelcase's James P. Hackett have an always-on videoconferencing link from one office to another to spur casual collaboration.
"When you call somebody, there's always the thing of figuring out whether they're going to want to talk to you or not, or are they even there," Kelley said. "This totally gets around that, completely." Kelley can see if Hackett is away, has someone in his office, or is on the phone, and vice versa. Occasionally, one will have to signal to the other that he has left his microphone on by mistake, but they know each other well enough to work around those glitches.
"There is a little bit of a concern about privacy. It has to be someone you're pretty close to on the other end," Kelley said. He suspects that may be one reason more people haven't tried setting up a wormhole, even though he and Hackett have been showing off their setup to visitors to their respective offices for years.
There are other organizations, such as the consulting firm Accenture, that have experimented with the wormhole concept. One operates between a research and development office at the firm's Chicago R&D facility and a coffee break area at a facility in San Jose. This virtual water cooler, based on a videoconferencing link that requires no reservations to use, "allows people to bump into colleagues the same way they would bump into them at actual sites and have natural interactions across distance," said Charles Nebolsky, global solutions development leader for Accenture's Cisco Business Group. A similar approach has been used to connect R&D labs in locations like France and India, where people need to work with each other on a regular basis.
Nebolsky said the concept hasn't caught on with Accenture customers, but does serve as a useful technology demo for its partner Cisco's telepresence systems.
Another wormhole operates between MIT and Stanford, placed in coffee shops at each campus.
Will the wormhole ever become more widely accepted as a business tool?
Kelley said he can understand why businesses might be frightened by the telecommunications cost associated with keeping a videoconferencing link open on an ongoing basis. However, Internet connectivity and the falling cost of video equipment have dramatically lowered the barriers, he said. Outside of his own office, Ideo has also set up wormholes for a few employees who moved away and now work from remote locations. For example, one woman left behind a videoconferencing terminal, which sits where she used to, that has an always-on connection to her new digs at Ideo's Boston office. That means people can walk up to her desk in Palo Alto anytime they want to chat.
"Twenty-five years ago, we actually attempted something similar with Xerox PARC," Kelly said, referring to the famed Palo Alto Research Center that's just a few miles from his office. The project involved digging up streets and laying fiber optic cable just so the two locations could have an always-on video connection between their offices. "Back then, it was super expensive and only done for a kind of a research purpose."
Today, it's something anyone could do. So does a wormhole make sense for you?
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