Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” wrote science-fiction author and inventor, Arthur C Clarke. In this sense, every day, people perform magic without batting their eyelids. They whip out their mobile phones akin to magic wands and telecommunicate with anyone, anywhere, in an instant.
While we may marvel at the varied fantastic tasks that the latest technological devices can perform, we are most fascinated when these devices are able to connect us to another human being and bring people together in a virtual space.
Having a virtual meeting means people need not be confined to a venue, so they can be as mobile as they want. Hence, this opens up new possibilities of exciting venues to conduct meetings.
Convention centres and hotels are still popular and convenient choices for meetings since they have the irreplaceable and winning factor of bringing people together for face-to-face communication. Where does the technology part come in then? Just browse through the specification of a space and it will boast a list of its state-of-the art technology and equipment: “fully equipped rooms with projector”, “motorised screens”, “plasma screens”, “IP (Internet Protocol) and broadcast camera”, “audio-visual systems”, “wireless and wire data system”, “video-conferencing system” and the list goes on. It may all sound impressive but, in truth, if you’re planning a meeting, you’ll want to see how technology can help you achieve your aims.
Langham Place hotel, Mongkok, Hong Kong, is a technologically advanced hote, which is equipped with a sophisticated system called the 3M Digital Wall Display in the boardroom of its business centre. Guests can also conduct video-conferencing for multiple participants and locations across ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network), IP and PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network). “Video conferencing is now an accepted and necessary tool for doing business in the global community, so we felt it was very important to establish our own facilities to provide an additional service to our guests,” says Jeffrey Van Vorsselen, the hotel’s general manager.
Convention and exhibition centres also feature up-to-date meetings technology. For example, Suntec Singapore International Convention & Exhibition Centre is equipped with an infra-red Simultaneous Interpretation System to translate up to 12 languages. Warren J Buckley, its chief executive officer, says the centre also has the technology to support satellite conferencing.
If you want the equipment to work for you, instead of working against you (especially if your audience is not tech-savvy), then it’s time to bring in the experts. Peter Hair, the founding director of Ezicomms, a conference technology company (www.ezicomms.com), says its products range from audience response systems for conference voting to electronic text responses for feedback. He says the advantage of “such a system allows for anonymous voting which is extremely important to get true feedback, since a lot of our events are internal staff meetings where staff are asked quite sensitive questions”.
With Wi-Fi access in most locations, we can have a meeting almost any place and time we choose. That is unless you’re “trapped” in the air, with no internet access on a long-haul flight. But are there any solutions to get you on board for the meeting while you’re flying?
So far, meetings can only be carried out on private jets. Steven Hill, president of Boeing Business Jets (BBJ) reveals: “BBJs are typically equipped with SATCOM, high-speed and broadband connections. With all the amenities of the office or home, BBJ owners can turn a long-range flight into productive work time. These airplanes can also include a private office, a meeting room, 42-inch plasma screens, several computer hook-ups and a server, which can be connected to a ground-based office”.
Seeing eye to eye takes on a whole new meaning in virtual meetings via video-conferencing. Human beings have evolved many forms of communication over hundreds of thousands of years, thus we have developed the skills to read body language and pick up on the nuances of voice tone or eye contact.
For these reasons, nothing will ever replace the role of face-to-face meetings no matter how much technology progresses. Human beings are social animals who best respond to each other in the flesh, not through encounters in cyberspace. While virtual conferencing may never replace the “real thing”, it can nonetheless provide a useful complement.
One of the exponents for video-conferencing is Tandberg. (www.tandberg.com). To demonstrate the prowess of Tandberg’s product, the company arranged a video-conference interview for me with Lars Rønning, president, North/Southeast Asia and Australia/New Zealand of Tandberg. He was in Singapore speaking to me, sitting in Hong Kong) via Tandberg’s Profile series. He highlights how video-conferencing streamlines workflows, lowers costs and increases productivity. The advantages are obvious, no plane tickets to buy, no hotel rooms to reserve, no meeting rooms to book. The savings in time, effort and cash are considerable, especially for smaller companies and networks.
With the dramatic improvement in telephone, cable, broadband and wireless connections as well as in video compression, camera and speaker quality, you may find you already have perfectly adequate video-conferencing technology sitting on your desk or in your pocket.
Wherever you go
For some, it may be a blessing to have a personal hand-held gadget that doubles up as a mini-office, judging from the omnipresent BlackBerry and the long queues for Apple’s iPhone.
Norm Lo, vice-president of Asia-Pacific for Research In Motion (RIM) says: “Increasingly, organisations understand that work is not a place employees commute to, rather, it is something they get done. Personal appointments can be maintained by sending mission-critical data via mobile devices such as the BlackBerry.”
While there are many hand-held gadgets out there in the market that enable you to check email records, browse the web, set up calendars and basically multi-task, the personal gadgets are most noted for enabling video-conferencing to take place while you’re on the go since there are more Wi-Fi hotspots popping up everywhere.
Rønning espouses the idea of being mobile: “The meeting place is where you are, it doesn’t have to be in an office or in the boardroom, the technology should be as easy as possible to follow you around.” Meetings technology opens up endless possibilities of meeting spaces and with so many developments in the pipeline, who knows what other “magic tricks” can be performed? n
Types of Virtual Conferences
Teleconferencing, which involves participants linked by standard telephone lines, has been around for several years. Nowadays, several participants can gather round a single speaker and microphone unit set up on a boardroom table and tele-communicate. This is a voice-only technology.
Video-conferencing is where the participants not only have visual sight of their counterparts in other locations, but they can also hear and talk to one another. This used to be a highly complex process, often involving satellite link-ups. Today it can be done on a laptop using broadband connections.
Web conferencing is possibly the fastest changing virtual meeting technology. This can involve voice, video and data transmission. Web conferencing can also include a number of interactive functions, such as voting, question and answer sessions and so on.
Ismet Bachtiar attended the CNN Future Summit in Singapore. He shares his thoughts about meeting technology.
The scene is an auditorium filled with tech-inclined individuals from all walks of life; students, business people and creatives alike. The purpose? They are converging for a discussion by CNN Future Summit in Singapore to listen to a panel of distinguished visionaries as they pit their wits on the contemporary subject of “virtual communities”.
Judging from the capacity crowd, it’s a hot-button topic.
While most of the speakers were physically present on location, the biggest name on the list, Jimmy Wales (the founder of Wikipedia), joined the discussion via telepresence, rendered larger than life on a jumbo-sized screen in high-definition glory.
What better way to tackle the concept of virtual communication than for him take an active part in the discussion, despite the fact that he’s actually halfway across the world in his New York office. It’s 7am in his neck of the woods, which may explain why he’s looking grumpy.
While this may not be a Star Trek holodeck, what’s important to note is that we’re fast bypassing tired conventions of communication technology.
Even for the person with adequate means and simple technical know-how, new communication technologies are practical enough to utilise efficiently and on the cheap.
On the most basic level, there’s VoIP (Voice-Over Internet Protocol) services made popular by applications such as Skype, where having conversations or a conference call with anyone around the world is simply a matter of getting tethered to a decent internet connection and where costs are next-to-nix.
And, while you’re at it, why stop at a voice exchange when video-conferencing is just as commonplace and whose only requirement is to slap on a stock-standard webcam to your individual computer, coupled with the use of free instant messenger services the likes of Live Messenger?
This push for new technologies has seen a change in the devices we use. Manufacturers of laptops and LCD monitors, for example, are incorporating built-in webcams, making it all the more convenient for videoconferencing.
Or take the recent spate of 3G mobile phones, with cameras on the face side of the handset. The fact that you’re no longer limited to lugging a laptop, or parking yourself on a static PC workstation to transmit a real-time visual presence is a liberating sensation, especially on the off chance that you’re holidaying on some beach and have to be called for an emergency meeting.
While the proliferation of 3G mobile phones has yet to reach critical mass among consumers, it is opening up a very interesting trend. Even with a product as slick as the iPhone, one main gripe is that it’s not 3G-enabled.
But let’s bring it back full circle to Jimmy Wales at the CNN Future Summit. He sums up all these tools, be it his BlackBerry laid out on the table beside him, or the very technology that’s transmitting his opinions, as “a little bit of co-presence that goes on all the time”.
It’s a reminder that you could be in your hotel room closing a deal via Skype, critiquing the layouts for a print advertising pitch via video-conference at a Wi-Fi-enabled fast-food outlet around the corner, or attending a press conference via Second Life.
With all these technologies in place, you’re practically and virtually everywhere that needs you.
Video-conferencing – the green screen
Technology provider, Tandberg, cites the example of Vodafone on how video-conferencing can help save the environment. “Video-conferencing reduces travelling time and carbon emission. In a study by Intel, if 10% of the American’s workforce would tele-commute one day per week, they would save five million litres of fuel per week”, says Lars Rønning, president, North/Southeast Asia and Australia/New Zealand of Tangberg. Vodafone has pledged to decrease staff travelling time by relying more on video-conferencing for meetings. It even has a box in the company’s travel application form asking employees whether the meeting can be done via video-conferencing. With such conscientious efforts to reduce carbon emission, Vodafone saved 13,000 plane trips last year.