You are about to be tangoed. No, it is not about drinking some adolescent fizz, this is about using the Technically Advanced Next Generation Office, or Tango.
Last month EADS Defence & Security Systems signed a three-year, €1m joint development deal with Edinburgh University to develop an "instrumented environment" that can monitor and record how decisions are reached in meetings.
The initial target markets range from board rooms, through No 10's Cabinet Room, to the command and control rooms of military and civil defence organisations, says Simon Bradley, vice-president and head of engineering, IT, environment of systems and simulation at EADS Innovation Works, the firm's research and development arm.
EADS executives, starting with the Tango project team, will be the first to use the multimedia information centre to access data and track how they reach decisions. Their aim is to improve decision-making in the organisation and to improve governance and accountability to shareholders.
Tony Bagnoll, head of operations at the division, said Tango would be valuable to organisations because it embedded policies and governance information. This would allow it to track whether the people making decisions had the authority to make them. "If things go wrong, it will also be useful to go back and see what information they had at the time they took the decision," he said.
The Tango room records everything that is said and presented in the meeting in sound, image and video. Bradley said they could annotate the emotions expressed in the meeting and feed them into avatars (representative simulations of the meeting's participants) for play-back.
"This is not about pinning the blame on anyone but understanding what happened to improve the process of how we arrive at decisions," Bagnoll said. However, he admits lawyers might strain to get access to the system when things go wrong.
An old idea
The idea behind Tango is not new. In the 1980s International Computers Ltd or ICL (now part of Fujitsu Computers) developed The Pod. This was a similar enclosed high-tech meeting space with an early version of interactive video whiteboards. But that failed because the networks of the time were too slow and expensive, and the mix of digital and analogue technology too creaky to make it viable, says Bagnoll. Now the required technologies, in particular data security, are up to scratch, he says.
However, Edinburgh University did not give up on the idea. It worked on what it called the "instrumented office", mainly to find a better way of taking minutes and storing the data on which the decisions were taken.
But it was not until Bagnoll recognised its applicability to security and defence situation rooms that it caught fire.
Innovation Works is now planning to develop different "flavours" of Tango. On the cards are one for the army in its role as a peace-keeper, another for war-fighting, yet another for humanitarian actions. These are in addition to civilian and commercial applications such as financial trading rooms and board rooms.
But don't people get camera-shy as they do in video-conferences? Bagnoll says Edinburgh has conducted some 800 live meetings at which genuine decisions were reached. "In 90% of cases people soon reverted to type and forgot that they were being recorded," he says.
Bradley and Bagnoll are now putting in infrastructure such as communications lines to the university and 360-degree cameras to set up the room.
They hope to have working versions within 18 months, and a "shrink-wrapped, fully industrialised" commercial offering within three years.
This was first published in January 2009