One problem with geographic separation is that the people in the other office are very abstract. You might see work coming from them in the form of code, releases, email, etc., but it's very hard for the actual people between offices to make a connection. And that inter-personal connection is very important to us as a company, so I set out to figure out a way to solve it.
My co-founder Sean aptly named this project "Project Stargate," after the science fiction Stargate movie in which shortcut paths to the Universe are opened up through a round, glowing portal (really wanna geek out? More details on Stargate here), so the name has stuck.
I'll be adding to this blog as we figure things out, and I'd really like to have your thoughts in the comments section below, especially if you've done any work to solve this problem (any Y Combinator startups out there working on this vexing issue?). Just to be clear, we all have AIM, or Gtalk, or Skype call & video chat abilities - that's not the problem. The problem is that to initiate a call or IM chat requires effort. And while it may be a very small, minimal amount of effort, nonetheless it's effort, which means that the magical moments where someone turns to another person and says "hey, I have an idea" or "can you look at this for me" are lost. And that's really, really significant. Since effort is required to establish a connection, the serendipitous connections are lost. That's what I'm trying to bring back through "Project Stargate".
My idea is to have a persistent, "always on" type of connection between the two offices. No screen savers, nothing to power up or turn on, no connections to be established. It's just an always-on "portal" between the two offices.
Here are the issues I've established so far in this project, which I'm working to resolve:
We may also try offering our video connection up to AppMakr users - this is just an idea and could become overwhelming, but it's a neat concept that an AppMakr user could see us at work and connect with us via video quickly & easily. This would be phase 2, though.
PS - I love what Trevor at Anybots is doing to work on this issue as well. I'm not sure how a roving robot that feels vaguely human compares to a standard workstation, but if anyone has tried it, I'd love to hear details.
Here's a video showing the setup:
And here are more pics:
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My idea would be to have an always on feed of my back (not viewing the screen or my face) and no outgoing audio unless requested. The idea is that you rarely are actually working face to face with someone in a real office, but have the ability to walk up behind them. If they wanted to engage with you they would turn around to face the camera and turn on their mike. To me that sounds like a fairly natural way to not be too creepy, but still be "a local office" with the constant cubicle feel.
Another idea would be to have a "water cooler/coffee machine" with the always on video stream there. Audio always on too. Break time becomes profitable time.
Yeah great ideas. We're using Perch in the Palo Alto & NYC kitchens and that seems to be working well. Very serendipitous meetings as people walk in & out.
BTW here is a blog about Perch: http://danielodio.com/remote-always-on-connecting-our-offices-with-sqwiggle
Yeah, I've only successfully done Skype-to-Skype video conferencing between remote offices and it works well. But, I tried attempting it to connect to other platforms (though never to Polycom) and it started troubling me. Hence, I ended up using RHUB's appliance for all my video conferencing b/c it's more secure and easy to use. No more headaches.
My company currently has 5 remote employees (all in different locations) and 4 in the home office. The 5 remote employees used to work all in one office. At first we had 5 remote employees and 2 in the home office. It has been hard to manage people, coordinate and collaborate from a distance (I'm a rah rah kind of manager). And I do think we've lost a lot by not having the "hallway" conversations, or the ability to overhear a conversation and instert something into it that you may know. Ad hoc meetings using the whiteboard are a thing of the past. We've tried to deal with it in many ways. Everyone in my company has a camera on their desk. No one uses it. We do however have a weekly company meeting where using it is required. For that meeting we have multipoint video conferencing, with pretty good quality from acrobat.com (adobe service). The service also offers file sharing and other collaboration tools that we don't use. We use our voip phones for conferencing, chat, gotomeeting, shared calendar through google, wiki's, web based CRM, etc. But still something is lost. One game changer for us was to create an old fashioned private chat server, and "outlaw" google chat, eliminating one-way conversations, under the premise that information would flow better between people, we could simulate "hallway conversation" using it, and we'd build better comradery and more regular interpersonal commucations. If anyone really needs a private conversation, you can open a private chat with someone very easily. This was a game changer and I would recommend it for any company that manages a dispersed team.
However, it doesn't solve everything. I've been contemplating creating a similar setup to what you have but for every desktop. A 24 inch monitor, on every desk, next to the existing workstation monitor, with a similar computer to what you have, with employee agreement that is to be used more like an appliance -- with specific always on applications for video conferencing and collaboration -- including our company text chat, always on voice chat (for those who feel like participating), our web based in/out board, our shared calendar, and other collaboration tools.
My thinking is that the camera;'s are always on on the desktop. We build programs so I'd love to have it be home grown apps, that we modify whenever we see a need. I also know I'd have people with the "big brother" concern. But I think the pro's outweigh the con's. We're just simulating the benefits of being in an office, while the employees still have the benefits of working from home. It would be so nice to glance to my right and see if someone was at their desk. Not to keep attendance, but just to know that I could call them or request that they call me, rather than check the in/out board, check chat status, send a chat, call their extension, and then their cell. It would be great if people were willing to be in a voice chat room while they work (with some established and agreed rules), so you could have that one off "Hey joe, where on the network did you send that file" or the occasional joke. It also would be nice to have a monitor that's always there with "at a glance" access to information like your shared calendar, in/out board, video of co-workers, contact management tools, text chat, and a few other choice tools, so that you don't have to open and close applications or shuffle screen/desktop space to open these things.
I'm playing with the idea of making my whole company remote if we could cobble together a set of usable tools and lay them out nicely on an "appliance" that I can ship out configured to each user, or build some open source tools of our own that would make a nice remote office tool.
I like your "Stargate" name. I was thinking of calling my appliance simply "the office". If anyone has any tool suggestions, or other suggestions please let me know. I will follow this blog and my thanks to AppMakr for starting it.
Stargate is up & running! See updates here: http://www.danielodio.com/2010/10/22/project-star... and http://www.danielodio.com/2010/10/15/project-star...
Very cool concept. I can imagine someday having an entire wall (Total Recall-esque) that would serve video of your other location. It might simply look like the entrance to another room, but one you could only walk up to, not in to. Maybe the video wall would have facial recognition or other type of tracking that would allow for attaching pertinent information to each person. Either location could simply touch the screen and pull up a person's name, title, current projects, etc. and then also have the opportunity to "speak" to them...
...sorry, kind of off track there...I can't think of any specific solution to the issues raised above, but you might try looking at services like Justin.tv and a software download named Dyyno Broadcaster. I experimented with this setup briefly to broadcast an "always on" live video feed. I could do straight video but I could also show my desktop which might be handy for your two locations to virtually site over someone's shoulder as they show you what they're working on. http://www.dyyno.com/pages/products/
Not sure if this even solves the two-way connection though???
Earlier this week I wrote a post about "Project Stargate" - our attempt at an "always on" telepresence solution between our DC & SF offices.
Justin Thorpe of Clearspring suggested I contact Rob Bailey at SimpleGeo after reading my post, because SimpleGeo has also implemented a Stargate type solution. So I did.
Rob was kind enough to show me SimpleGeo's implementation. And it rocks! They have an office in Boulder, CO & in San Francisco, CA.
Some suggestions from Rob & Team:
Earlier this week I wrote a post about "Project Stargate" - our attempt at an "always on" telepresence solution between our DC & SF offices. Justin Thorpe of Clearspring suggested I contact Rob Bailey at SimpleGeo after reading my post, because SimpleGeo has also implemented a Stargate type solution. So I did. Rob was kind enough to show me SimpleGeo's implementation. And it rocks! They have an office in Boulder, CO & in San Francisco, CA. Some suggestions from Rob & Team: Don't use the standard webcam microphone (too much feedback). Instead, they use the Polycom C100S USB speakerphone (it's meant for Skype, but it works for iChat too) Speaking of iChat, SimpleGeo uses a Mac Mini with iChat, which lets them connect up to 4 parties. As per my post earlier this week, I opted for Windows machines since Skype HD 5.0 Beta is only available on Windows. Turns out that the Logitech Vid software works better than Skype anyway, and that's also only available on Windows too. However, iChat was running beautifully on the SimpleGeo setup, so it looks like you have good options whether you choose PC or Mac. Rob also recommended the unit be put on a cart with wheels. "We wheel it around all the time," he said. They even bring it over to another part of their office for all-hands meetings. They also keep it on all day, and so I asked them about the "creep factor" that I was very worried about in my last post. But they said it's no big deal. It helps to keep the unit in a corner away from people, but Rob said it's "just like having someone in the room." So, having the rig on a cart with wheels that can be moved seems to be working well for SimpleGeo. Videos are coming showing the SimpleGeo implementation. There's a big opportunity here for a startup to solve this problem. There's no really good software solution out there for an "always on" type setup. If you're a soon-to-be-funded Y Combinator company, or definitely take a look at how you could solve this problem. What's missing is: Ability for screen to be blurry unless someone "wakes up" the system, meaning you can still see people & movement, but not make out specifics - think of a translucent effect. I'm thinking this would help with any potential "creep factor" arising from this being always on A software + hardware solution that would allow for it to be muted all the time (also something SimpleGeo said they often did) and a big red easy-to-push button (think the size of the Staples button) for muting & unmuting the audio + good audio, like from the Polycom. This way people could quickly & easily ping the other side. Maybe the software interacts with the hardware so when the audio is un-muted, the screen goes from blurry to clear. Ability to connect with multiple parties in realtime Have a resizeable box of your video feed, to remind people that it's on and they're on camera. Currently no software implementation seems to have a resizeable thumbnail box of your feed. Anyone up to the challenge? Here's video of Rob discussing the Skype Video Phone (he doesn't like it): And here's video of the Stargate implementation that SimpleGeo uses:
I spent $1800 on my first high quality camera. I was on the brink of Life Nomadic, and I justified the purchase with two ideas. The first was that I would be seeing a lot of things for the first, and possibly the only, time. Second, the particular camera I bought, an Epson R-D1s, seemed to hold its value well.
It came as a shock to a lot of people how primitive my camera was in many ways. It had no autofocus, no flash, no video recording capabilities, no self timer, and the only thing it could do automatically was light metering. It did that poorly. After each shot it was necessary to thumb a switch, which mechanically reset the spring for the shutter.
I bought a single lens for it, a Nokton 40mm/1.4. It had no zoom, and the aperture was set mechanically by rotating a ring on the lens. The lens was gorgeous. For those who don't know, a 1.4 F-Stop means that the lens is very fast: it lets in a lot of light. The average camera lens is probably around an f/3.5, which lets in only an eighth as much light as mine did. That's how I got amazing low-light pictures like this one.