large videoconferencing groups comfortable at Heller Financial of
corporate world can be impersonal at times. In the good old days, a
simple handshake was enough to seal a business deal. But smoke filled
rooms have given way to the sleek, on-time presentations of videoconferencing.
While this new way of doing business can save time and money, its growing
role is causing a whole new dilemma for those who use it the most. How
do you keep things on a personal note while looking into the eye of
a video camera?
That was the dilemma facing
Heller Financial of Chicago when they contacted United Visual last fall.
What Heller Chairman Dick Almeida envisioned was something far different
from the videoconferencing rollabout they had been using. Heller asked
Unitedís Doug Carnell to find a way to maximize the feelings of personal
contact and warmth in an installed system that could be used with groups
of up to 40 local participants. Carnell turned to the AMX Tiltcam, a
personal videoconferencing workstation complete with camera, monitor,
control panel and microphone, tying it into a PictureTel Concord codec.
By installing 13 Tiltcams in the companyís beautiful mahogany conference
table, Carnell was able to put every videoconference participant in
an up-close-and-personal position that made it seem as if they were
sitting across the table from those at far end sites. The finished system,
according to TiltCam designer Chris Monck, is the only one of its kind.
Large groups and videoconferencing
Although the firm calls Chicago
home, Heller Financial has offices all around the United States and
owns or joint venture companies in Asia, Europe, Australia and Latin
America. Heller offers its clients a variety of commercial financial
services, from working capital loans to real estate financing. A few
years ago Heller purchased a portable videoconferencing rollabout (an
integrated system with monitor, camera and codec all mounted in a rolling
cabinet) and found it a major time and money saver. Because the company
covers every inch of the globe, travel has become a major cost and concern.
Corporate facility manager John Terpin says a Heller employee is always
in the air. The rollabout system was able to save some of this travel
and begin to speed up and improve the decision-making process. Still,
though the rollabout worked fine with only 4 or 5 people in the room,
conferences with 20 or more were getting unworkable.
system was older technology," says Terpin. "It looked terrible
for a boardroom." Most often, Heller managers had to settle for
a wide shot of everybody, with no one person really visible to the
remote sites. Alternatively, they could turn on the systemís automatic
tracking camera, but, with so many people taking turns talking, the
camera was always playing catch up. "It was constantly people
in motion," says Terpin. Needless to say, Chicago seemed far
away indeed to those at the remote sites.
Thatís when United Visual
entered the picture and Doug Carnell put his imagination to work.
With the new system he designed, each participant focuses on an LCD
monitor less than two feet in front of him. That makes the remote
location seem closer. Instead of 20 or 30 people sharing a rollabout,
now only one or two people use each station. They no longer have a
tendency to raise their voices talking to a far-away system, and looking
someone straight in the eye is a breeze. A glance across the table
at local participants and back again to far end people is perfectly
natural. Instead of a huge group of tiny faces, remote participants
can focus is on the person speaking.
For Carnell, the Heller
installation "was probably the biggest, most difficult job Iíve
ever done. But at the same time it was a simple concept." Programming
was unusually complex, especially as programmer Brian Clements brought
the roomís automatic switching system to life. "The idea,"
says Carnell, "was for the system to switch from one speaker
to the next without anyone having to touch a button." Tying a
switcher to an automatic mixer could make that happen, but the effect
would be extremely disconcerting when several people spoke at once.
Clements avoided the problem by programming the system to stay with
the original speaker as long as he keeps talking, moving on only after
a short delay to ensure a sense of continuity. "The effect is
very natural." Says Carnell. "The system stays with one
speaker despite short interruptions, just as someone sitting in the
room would. If someone else starts talking, the camera shifts over
to him just as your glance would." Thereís a fail safe built
in if the meeting gets out of hand, too. The chairman can switch into
manual mode and decide for himself who gets the "podium."