Interacting with technology - speech, touch, presence, etc (W-Tech)

Speakers: Jane Lewis, PFE from Microsoft UK and Eileen Brown IT Pro Evangelism Manager

(Aside: Jane Lewis kicked off by mentioning this was the first time she’d presented to a room that’s almost women-only. Looking round, I can count one chap on the back row.)

Change of pace for this smaller session in the Faraday Room – this time we’re looking at technology rather than ways of working. And the subject is unfied comms – introduced with a Devil Wears Prada spoof. (You know the bit where they’re all waiting for an alert that the boss is about to arrive? That bit.) Fun idea, but the clothes aren’t as good! And, erm, it’s just crashed twice right at the good bit (voice-interaction and a round-table device). But you guys at home / in the office can watch it here right now. (I’ll have to wait till later.) 



First demo – Touch. Eileen Brown shows off Microsoft Surface, the spill-resistant coffee table with a multi-touch computer built in. The key differentiator to Surface’s multi-touch interface, according to Eileen is that it recognises direction, orientation, different points of touch (e.g. fist versus finger) – thanks to 5 cameras. And it also reacts to specially tagged physical objects, allowing them to interact with the virtual objects onscreen –  e.g hotel key cards with chips embedded.

Certainly seems quite intuitive – easy enough for a volunteer to interact with and stack photos. And for two people to join together to choose the right sequence of French words for a language learning game. (“Like Twister!”, as one attendee aptly commented!) 

Answers to tech questions: Surface is programmed in standard MS programming languages. It’s an Intel box running Vista Business, £8.5k for the consumer / end-user box, and £10k for the version with the SDK.

(The Surface link here will take you to the videos my colleagues James and Faisal took at the demo they attended a while back.)

Second demo – Voice and Presence. Microsoft Office Communicator. Jane Lewis demonstrated this unified comms suite, with IM, VoIP, LiveMeeting etc all in one interface, complete with presence engine that can be embedded throughout other Microsoft apps like SharePoint. Jane demonstrated this briefly, including the voice-activated directory. I have to say, I wasn’t too impressed by the computerised voice’s attempt to read out or recognise names. Bit too hit and miss to make it a viable alternative to text input so far, on the basis of this demo. But it did get there in the end. (Echoes, coughs, etc, are apparently all a bit of a problem to the technology at the moment, so it didn’t like the packed room. Can’t imagine, then, how it would actually work well for Ms Hathaway, with her tray of coffees, running down a busy NY street begging it for information and connections!) So for now I think I’ll continue to steer clear of the voice interaction tools! (Spec wise the client application is available now for corporate set-ups – and compatible with Vista and Windows 7.)

LiveMeeting with a round-table video device was more impressive. Microsoft claim to have saved huge amounts in meeting / travel costs through use of this and associated tools. Used for video-conferencing, the round-table webcam device (possibly this one) is able to follow the voice of the speaker, keeping them centred in the video (so long as you’ve got enough speed and bandwidth!) even if they’re moving around the room (a bit). So the speaker has the freedom to present properly while the remote attendants can still follow all the action.

I’m guessing, though it wasn’t clear, that with multiple participants it would also swing to follow whoever’s speaking at any one time, so that you get a more real feeling of being ‘in the room’ if you’re the remote participant at a meeting held like this.

(Tech details: 5 cameras and 4 mirrors are used to give the wide panoramic view of Jane pacing the room that we saw.)

Anyway, this seemed to work well, albeit rather jumpily on the shared (with me, for one!) wireless access.

Pretty impressive, and would love to get the chance to try this for some of the cross-channel technical meetings I’ve recently tried to attend via voice-conference only. I think it’s been around for a while now – do any of you have practical experience of using this kind of set up?

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