What A Video Wormhole Can Do For You

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.

David F Carr, Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

October 24, 2011

6 Min Read

Cisco Umi

Cisco Umi

Slideshow: Cisco Umi Takes Telepresence To The Home (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

When Ideo's David Kelley wants to talk with Steelcase CEO James P. Hackett, Kelley just looks across the room--never mind that the two men work from offices more than 2,000 miles apart.

Their offices are linked by a video "wormhole," a term borrowed from theoretical physics (and science fiction vehicles like the Stargate franchise). A wormhole is an instantaneous link between distant locations. In this case, instead of black hole transmitting tachyons across the universe, Kelley's office in Palo Alto is equipped with a Tandberg videoconferencing unit with a continuously open connection to Hackett's office in Grand Rapids, Mich.

That connection has been open for years now, and Kelley thinks it's something more company leaders should try. "It's been a godsend," Kelley said in an interview. Acting like an open window into the office of his friend and customer, the wormhole eliminates a lot of back and forth negotiation over meeting times between the two men and their assistants. Instead, he has "a seamless way to see if Jim's goofing off or if he's working," and can instantly start a conversation just by turning on his microphone.

As founder and chairman of Ideo as well as Stanford's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (a.k.a., the d.school), Kelley is known as a deep thinker on designing organizations as well as products. The idea for the wormhole came from Hackett, who has also deployed variations on this setup as connections between some Steelcase offices and public locations. Kelley said it wasn't motivated by a desire to promote any company's videoconferencing gear but as an experiment in the use of technology, which he and Hackett have found useful over the years.

[ Video use is growing. Read Cisco, Citrix Do Video Via Virtual Desktop. ]

Because Steelcase is Ideo's largest customer, and an investor in the company, Hackett "is somebody I need to collaborate with a lot," Kelley said.

Best known as an office furniture company, Steelcase is also increasingly promoting itself as a creator of workplace environments that also include information technology. According to Lew Epstein, general manager of advanced applications and integrated technologies for Steelcase, the company is thinking of ways to bring the wormhole concept to market, although it has not solidified any particular product plans. "This is a way you can have a window into another location and have that window be open all the time," Epstein said. "We've been thinking about how would we make this feel natural, so you would be just as likely to turn toward that person on the screen as you would to me across the table?"

Kelley is particularly known for his approach to human-centered design, and he said the workings of the wormhole are more about psychology than technology. The technology is nothing special--just a standard, not particularly high-end, Tandberg videoconferencing unit.

"What it tells me is this resolution is plenty good enough to kind of see what's going on, from an experiential point of view. It's over some line, psychologically, that makes it work," Kelley said. High-end video conferencing and telepresence systems aim to deliver a "just like being there" feeling with high definition camera, screens, lighting, and lifesize displays of participants. However, most video conferencing is a relatively formal affair, conducted by appointment. At a minimum, it works more like making a phone call, whereas the wormhole opens up interactions that are more like running into someone in the hallway outside your office and having a spontaneous conversation.

"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?

About the Author(s)

David F Carr

Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

David F. Carr oversees InformationWeek's coverage of government and healthcare IT. He previously led coverage of social business and education technologies and continues to contribute in those areas. He is the editor of Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, Oct. 2013) and was the social business track chair for UBM's E2 conference in 2012 and 2013. He is a frequent speaker and panel moderator at industry events. David is a former Technology Editor of Baseline Magazine and Internet World magazine and has freelanced for publications including CIO Magazine, CIO Insight, and Defense Systems. He has also worked as a web consultant and is the author of several WordPress plugins, including Facebook Tab Manager and RSVPMaker. David works from a home office in Coral Springs, Florida. Contact him at [email protected]and follow him at @davidfcarr.

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