Like being there

A new generation of video-conferencing technology awes.

Your first Halo meeting can be a little disconcerting. There is something Through the Looking Glass about it. Across the table, where there should be other chairs with human beings in them, a wall of flat-panel TV screens looms instead. Other people are unmistakably there, though. Or rather, here. Beamed across Halo's private network in DVD-quality video from the other side of the planet, they appear almost life-size, sitting in an exact mirror of the room you're in, its other half. They smile and nod as you get seated. It takes a moment to realize they're smiling and nodding at you. They can see you as clearly as you can see them. “It is a little weird,” you whisper to a neighbour. The disembodied beings across the table chuckle knowingly in response. “Welcome,” one of them says.

Halo, the apotheosis of video conferencing, was originally developed by Hewlett-Packard for DreamWorks Animation SKG, the company that made such movies as Shrek, but is now sold as a turnkey service to big, deep-pocketed corporations. No more jerky video on small screens or listening to scratchy telephone audio. No more complicated setup, no obtrusive and distracting technology. All the gear in the cleverly designed Halo rooms is hidden from sight. The controls are simple–“CEO-proof,” as one HP executive put it. Just turn it on, select a destination, and you're connected. The studio-quality lighting, crystal-clear sound and crisp, smooth video let you pick up every gesture, every nervous tic, every word. Even whispered asides. After the initial disorientation, it's as if you're in the same room with these people.

DreamWorks wanted to spare its senior executives, especially co-founder and CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, a brutal schedule that saw them shuttling between the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, and Bristol, England, its main production centres. The biweekly hops to England where the company was producing Shrek 2 were particularly exhausting. But conventional video conferencing wasn't going to cut it for meetings where creative staff had to pitch storyboards. The communication had to be more natural and nuanced. So DreamWorks asked its computing partner, HP, to help. The result is Halo.

It will set customers back US$425,000 to have a room built in their facility, with all the gear. And you need at least two rooms to make it worthwhile. As well, they pay US$18,000 a month for unlimited access to the dedicated Halo network, which provides about 40 times the bandwidth of a typical high-speed Internet connection. HP manages the network and the rooms, and provides a 24/7 “concierge” service. A new, recently launched version allows multi-point conferencing, and HP also offers a simultaneous translation service.

Since its introduction late last year, HP has built about 30 Halo rooms in 13 countries–though none in Canada yet. Customers include GE Commercial Finance, AIG Financial Products Corp., the pharmaceutical Novartis and PepsiCo. Why are they willing to pay such a steep price? Saving travel time and costs–the traditional case for video conferencing–is part of it. Unlike a lot of conventional video conferencing, Halo actually works well. Which is why the rooms are in use 120 to 150 hours a month, according to HP, compared with only 20 to 30 hours for conventional ones. More important, though, is saving wear and tear on highly paid execs, which boosts their productivity. Think of Halo rooms as the new executive jets of the post-9/11 era.