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Making large videoconferencing groups comfortable at Heller Financial of Chicago

View of Heller boardroom from the frontThe 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.

Overall view of conference room."The 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.

 

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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."