Inside the Halo room

As enterprises cut travel budgets and consider alternatives such as Web and videoconferencing to replace face-to-face meetings, telepresence continues to remain a technology for the elite.

Hewlett-Packard Co. is hoping to change this by reducing costs associated with its Halo telepresence technology. The company is working on a new version of Halo that will essentially reduce the cost and make it more affordable for companies, according to Victor Garcia, CTO for HP Canada.

Garcia led a briefing on HP Labs research from the Halo room at HP Canada headquarters in Mississauga, which connected a group of Ontario-based journalists and analysts with researchers and executives at HP corporate headquarters in Palo Alto, CA.

In its current state, Halo is a complete end-to-end system that uses HP hardware, software and services to transform a traditional conference room into a virtual collaboration space. Halo meeting rooms consist of strategically placed cameras, lighting, speakers and furniture to minimize distractions and mirror the other Halo meeting rooms they connect with.

Participants on both ends sit at built-in conference tables and speak directly to life-size projections, which convey body language and other real-life conversational cues. Broadcast-quality cameras are located above the displays to mimic proper eye-to-eye contact and spatial audio increases the perception that sound is coming directly from the particular individual speaking.

A dedicated collaboration channel allows participants to share content from their laptops on a separate display above the video screens. A high definition overhead camera also allows participants to share hard copy documents and objects by zooming in on an area of the conference table.

Halo operates on the proprietary Halo Video Exchange Network (HVEN) to ensure real time global communication with no apparent delays in audio or video. The secure network also features AES-256 encryption. Halo systems are installed, managed and serviced by HP.

Two-seater and four-seater models are also available for placement within an office.

“Halo is being described as the next best thing to being there, the ability to essentially talk to somebody one-on-one and project a certain amount of feelings into the collaboration experience,” said Garcia.

Halo rooms are beautifully designed conference rooms, but most people work at their desk or in a cube on an average network, pointed out John Apostolopolous, director of HP’s Multimedia Communications & Networking Lab.

HP is currently working on Halo technology that will allow employees to work from wherever they are, including desks and cubicles, as well as remotely on laptops, according to Apostolopolous.

One goal is to eliminate the visual clutter and background noise found in the average enterprise and small business environment so the technology can be used without a headset or dedicated space.

Another challenge is delivering high-quality real time audio and video over standard enterprise networks as well as the problems employees face when connecting from remote locations with limited local network speed and capacity.

Halo offers a high-quality experience because it has a dedicated managed network which connects all the sites throughout the world, guaranteeing high bandwidth, low latency and low loss rates, Apostolopolous explained. “We don’t have that in the enterprise,” he said.

A videoconferencing solution for the desktop called Skyroom is scheduled for release from HP’s Personal Systems Group (PSG) later this summer. While Skyroom doesn’t solve all the problems, it is the next step from Halo to the next generation of multimedia conferencing capabilities for the desktop, said Apostolopolous.

HP recently expanded Halo’s existing telepresence capabilities with the addition of HP Halo Webcasting. Enterprises outfitted with Halo can now use their endpoints to stream live, on-demand Webcasts to any Web-based audience. Up to three presenters from three different locations can be included in one Webcast, which can be shot live or recorded as a presentation.

One obstacle to widespread adoption of telepresence in the enterprise is still the price tag, according to Jayanth Angl, senior research analyst at London-based Info-Tech Research Group Inc.

Telepresence technology will take off as costs go down, according to Angl. “The user experience and the ease of use and the quality of video and audio is really there … the response has certainly been positive around the solution from a technology standpoint,” he said.

The cost for implementing a Halo system currently ranges from $249,000 to $350,000 depending on the model. Ongoing managed service fees range from $10,000 to $18,000 per month.

“That alone is a pretty substantial investment when we are talking about one site,” said Angl. “Certainly, a multi-site enterprise is going to outfit multiple rooms to make use of this.”

Enterprises who have invested are realizing the travel savings and benefits they are projecting, but those who can justify the investment and realize substantial savings are still limited to large global organizations, Angl pointed out.

“(Telepresence) is something we still see limited to larger organizations, not really an opportunity that many small- or mid-sized organizations can look at given some of the upfront and ongoing costs involved in managing this type of solution,” he said.

Another obstacle is the fees related to ensuring the appropriate network infrastructure, WAN capacity and bandwidth. “A lot of organizations aren’t even prepared from that standpoint,” said Angl.

Halo technology, which has its roots in the film industry, was introduced in 2005. HP worked with DreamWorks LLC to develop the first Halo system, which combined HP’s background in networks, digital imaging and collaboration with experts in lighting, sound and set building from DreamWorks, Garcia said.

Apart from its use in the film industry – Jerry Seinfeld, for example, built a Halo studio into his home in New York to avoid traveling to California for production of the Bee Movie – Halo is used in government, defense, pharmaceuticals, retail, energy, oil and gas.

The health care market is also starting to look at Halo for the delivery of telemedicine, according to Garcia. “The cost and the value of being able to treat people at a distance really justifies the investment in Halo technology,” he said.

Another potential application is the courts. “We are talking to entities to connect to judges and inmates over Halo,” said Garcia. A judge, for example, could hear multiple cases without having to physically be there, he explained.

The benefits aren’t just about reducing travel costs such as flights and hotels, but also saving time and avoiding missed opportunities, Garcia noted. A senior executive, for example, can conduct meetings with India, Brazil, the U.K., Canada and the U.S. all in one day. “The amount of time wasted going from place to place often cannot be justified,” he said.

Halo is also used extensively by HP itself to conduct internal meetings with teams around the world for software and product development, said Garcia.