Microsoft Eyes Future of Teleconferencing with RoundTable

REDMOND, Wash, Oct. 20, 2006 – Just ask any business traveler on a red-eye flight after a few days of meetings at corporate headquarters: There’s got to be a better way for businesses to bring employees together face-to-face.

Microsoft researchers felt sure they could come up with one – an audio/video device that’s mobile, simple to operate and costs much less than expensive video conferencing systems. Now, Microsoft aims to deliver on all three of these original design goals with Microsoft Office RoundTable, a device scheduled to debut by mid-year 2007. It combines the features of a speakerphone with those found in videoconferencing into a device that Microsoft expects will retail for less than US$3,000.

Microsoft Office RoundTable, a device scheduled to debut by mid-year 2007, combines the features of a speakerphone with those found in videoconferencing into a device that Microsoft expects will retail for less than US$3,000.

PressPass spoke with Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Unified Communications Group, to find out more about RoundTable, how the technology matured within Microsoft and how pre-release versions of the technology have enhanced his own conference calls.

PressPass: Can you briefly describe RoundTable?

Gurdeep Singh Pall: Yes. RoundTable is a table-top device, not much bigger than a traditional speaker phone at the base. It can be connected to a standard PC to offer synchronized voice and video conferencing. The device creates a 360-degree, panoramic video of side-by-side images of everyone who is taking part in the conference. It tracks the flow of the conversation, so the image and voice of the person who is speaking are spotlighted. People across many locations can attend meetings together virtually.

RoundTable works with Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Live Meeting, allowing companies to integrate virtual presentations, shared whiteboards and file sharing into their audio/video conferences. If someone misses a conference call, the RoundTable sessions can be recorded and viewed later.

PressPass: What differentiates RoundTable from other conferencing technologies?

Pall: Anybody who has struggled through an audio-only teleconference knows the shortcomings of this technology. Typically, if more than five people get on the call, you can’t tell who’s talking. And, you can’t see any of the non-verbal communication that can be so important when people from different cultures try to communicate.

Alternatively, most videoconferencing systems are expensive and complicated to install and operate. As a result, these systems are usually confined to specially configured meeting rooms, which have to be booked days in advance of a conference call.

RoundTable is plug-and-play. You need almost no training to set it up or use it. All you do is connect the RoundTable device to a computer that’s running Office Communications Server 2007 or Live Meeting via a USB connection. We expect RoundTable devices will be available for less than $3,000. That’s about the cost of a high-end speaker phone and a fraction of the cost of most video-conferencing systems. Some of these video-conferencing systems cost $50,000 or more. How many of these set-ups can even the largest, most lucrative business afford to install?

PressPass: What stage of development are you in?

Pall: For the past few months, we’ve been testing the devices on campus – what people around here call “dogfooding.” There are about 100 RoundTables now in use around the Redmond campus, and our campuses in China and India. Also, many companies in our Technology Adoption Program (TAP) are getting a chance to try out the devices and provide feedback. More than 19 companies with a total of more than 7 million employees will have tried RoundTable before we release the final version next year.

PressPass: What kind of feedback are you getting so far?

Pall: Extremely positive. We’re doing some fine-tuning based on this feedback to technical details like the controls and white-balancing. I’m one of the testers, and I’ve been blown away by the RoundTable device in my office. On my team, we have people all around the world and from vastly different cultures. When we are talking, we each use our hands in different ways to help express ourselves. With RoundTable, people can see how you are saying it, and you can see if people are actually following what you’re saying by their gestures and the expressions on their faces.

RoundTable also removes background noise so you can focus on what the speaker is saying, not the sound of someone in the conference who is typing notes on a laptop. It’s hard to imagine a much better meeting experience, apart from having everybody in the room together.

PressPass: I understand RoundTable is based on technology originally developed by Microsoft Research?

Pall. Yes. Microsoft Research began developing the concept and technology about five years ago. They called it a “ringcam.” They set out to create a high-resolution device capable of capturing images from all around a conference room, digitally stitching together images and then feeding them through a PC. And, just as importantly, they sought to do all of these things with standard, off-the-shelf components so their device would be much less expensive than other omnidirectional conferencing systems.

RoundTable is the culmination of this effort. Earlier models have been on display for a few years at the Center for Information Work, a showroom here on the Redmond campus for our customers and partners to see our vision and what we’ve got in the pipeline for information workers.

I’ve been lucky to work on many great products, but RoundTable is absolutely one of the most innovative that I have seen in my career. To make the conferencing experience as realistic as possible, the developers solved some really tough technical problems, like how to equalize the light levels when one part of the conference room is darker than another.

PressPass: What are some of these technical challenges, and how did Microsoft overcome them?

Pall: For example, RoundTable must determine the dominant speaker in a conference room when several people are talking at the same time. It also must deal with background noises and hard surfaces that reflect sound. The developers ended up building six separate microphones into RoundTable to help differentiate between different sounds and isolate the dominant one thru a process called “beamforming.”

Each of these microphones is built into a different part of the device. Although sound travels fast – roughly 1,100 feet per second — there’s a slight time difference between when a microphone on one part of the device picks a speaker’s voice, as compared to a microphone on another part of the device. RoundTable calculates this difference in order to identify the source of the voice. It then uses visual cues to pinpoint, enlarge and emphasize the face of the speaker.

It’s an innovative, yet simple solution to complex problem.

PressPass: How does RoundTable differentiate between different sounds in the conference room?

Pall: One of the challenges is how to differentiate reflective vs. non-reflective sound – something that lots of speakerphones can’t do. In some cases, the sound that bounces off of, for example, white boards has the same energy level as a person’s voice. This can create a lot of noise and static for people who are on the other end of the speakerphone.

Our developers came up with an even simpler solution to this problem; they used RoundTable’s “eyes.” The sound-isolating technology relies on the cameras to isolate where each person is in the room. This way, the device knows if a person or a white board is doing the “talking.”

PressPass: To what kind of meetings is RoundTable best suited?

Pall: RoundTable is ideal for the two types of conferenced business meetings. First, there’s the meeting with two groups of people in two different conference rooms in different locations. If there’s a RoundTable in each room, the devices will capture a 360-degree view of each, and meld together images of each person on the monitor. Empty spaces around them get discarded. If someone has a PowerPoint or other document to share with the group, it appears on the screen alongside the images of the people.

The second type of meeting is also very common: You have one conference room full of people and several other people who are dialed in from the offices, home or a hotel. The remote attendees can use a RoundTable device or a standard Web cam to include their image in the meeting. If not, they can dial in from a standard phone, and their voice will be added to the session; if they have an online connection, they can see everyone in the conference room.

PressPass: How important is non-verbal communication in successful meetings?

Pall: We hear examples all of the time from companies that try to coordinate their offices around the globe, but fail because of misunderstandings among employees. Everyone may receive the same plan of action, but cultural cues and other information seem to slip through the cracks of conference calls.

One multinational company told me how it was unable to expand a successful ad campaign in Brazil to other countries. Marketing teams from each of these countries began working together via traditional teleconferencing. But employees from the other countries didn’t pick up on the passion of their colleagues who developed the campaign in Brazil. While some spoke up during the calls, others fastidiously took notes and rarely chimed in. In the end, the campaign failed in the other countries. The company blamed the missed communication during those conference calls. It now plans to give RoundTable a try.

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