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Remote collaboration becomes hands-on with visual workspaces

Dispersed workers, data visualization, cloud services and workplace modernization are driving forces behind an emerging set of immersive, remote collaboration products. As more employees work from home or on the road and companies continue to decode data, it's essential that remote team members can collaborate seamlessly with in-office co-workers.

Immersive collaboration systems marry large, interactive screens to multipurpose software with features such as video conferencing, digital annotation and mobile capabilities. A key feature in many of these products takes video conferencing and screen sharing a step further by enabling remote users to see and mark up content in real time via their laptops or mobile devices.  

Enterprise unified communications users ought to consider these products if they're looking to solve remote collaboration challenges and visualize company data. But despite the bells and whistles, industry analysts warn these products have their pitfalls.

In particular, prospective IT buyers need to heed cost, ease of use, annotation responsiveness, interoperability with other immersive systems and integration with other collaboration software, like Office 365. Additionally, analysts say, these products may be too exclusive to certain verticals, such as architecture, construction and engineering.

Not so, say vendors, who tout a variety of customers in various verticals, including marketing, retail, pharmaceuticals, financial services and education.

Cloud, web-based services bolster remote collaboration

Large-scale data visualization makes meetings more engaging, said Paige O'Neill, CMO of Prysm Inc., a provider of immersive collaboration systems. Additionally, she said, these types of newer technologies help modernize offices and, as a result, attract a younger generation of workers.

Prysm, based in San Jose, Calif., melds software and hardware components, including its proprietary laser phosphor displays. Its systems integrate with Microsoft applications, such as Office 365, OneDrive for Business and Skype for Business. Prysm stores data in the Microsoft Azure cloud, which fosters remote collaboration, since users can access data when they need it.

Los Angeles-based Oblong Industries, another vendor in this space, offers Mezzanine, which features a wireless, handheld wand that users wave to control content across multiple screens. This gesture-control technology is a differentiator for Mezzanine, as the wand uses an ultrasonic tracking system and three-dimensional spatial awareness, said Jennifer Uner, Oblong's communications director.

Oblong has coined the term Infopresence -- blending video conferencing and telepresence to include remote users' content in a shared digital workspace. Building on its remote collaboration tools, Oblong recently announced Mezz-In, which lets remote users upload and control presentations and share their screens within the Mezzanine web client.

A Mezzanine session can have up to four rooms connected at one time and up to 10 devices connected per room. Mezzanine includes an appliance in which collaborative work sessions are stored locally on premises. Oblong has developed some cloud storage options for certain customers, Uner said.

"A lot of people haven't said they need cloud," she added. "A lot of people like that it's on premises."

Oblong was founded by John Underkoffler, who designed the gesture-based computer interfaces in the sci-fi film Minority Report. The futuristic technology depicted in the 2002 film has now become a commercial reality.

Immersive collaboration technologies -- at a cost  

As intriguing as the technology underpinning these immersive systems might be, these products can be pricey. Prysm's 190-inch screen, for example, weighs 4,226 pounds and costs about $200,000, O'Neill said.

The company can customize larger setups, but also offers white-labeled LCD screens at 65, 85 and 98 inches, ranging between $10,000 and $20,000 for the screen and interactive appliance. Software pricing varies based on the number of user licenses, length of contract and packaging options with other Prysm technology. For comparison, the Microsoft Surface Hub, a similar immersive collaboration system, features two sizes -- 55 and 84 inches -- priced at $9,000 and $22,000, respectively.     

Some of these visual collaboration vendors, such as Oblong and Prysm, have offices set up worldwide, so potential customers can stop by and try out the technology.

"The best way for people to understand it is to experience it," Uner said.

In the video above, Prysm and Oblong demonstrate their respective products, as vendors in this space look to educate potential customers on the wide-ranging capabilities their technologies offer.

Buyer beware the bright, shiny object

If you're considering buying an immersive, visual collaboration service, industry analysts suggest heeding these key factors:

Cost. These robust visual collaboration services can get pricey, depending on the installation.

Ease of use. How easy are these products to use and will they require a great deal of employee training? If the tools are not easy to use and there's a lack of training, end users might abandon these products.

Annotation fluidity. Is the inking and touch responsiveness smooth on the screen? Sharp screen resolution is also a must.

Software integration. Do these hardware and software services integrate seamlessly with other collaboration software, like Office 365? Will you need to plug laptops in to the device to make certain programs work? 

Interoperability. Some of these immersive workspaces may not play nicely together.

Software-hardware bundle. Determine the right combination of screens and user licenses.    

Save and share. Make sure you can easily save your work onscreen and send it to colleagues.

Mobility. Buyers should look for platforms that have robust and easy-to-use mobile apps. 

Too niche? Will these elaborate platforms be a good fit in your organization, or are they better suited for another industry?

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Transcript - Remote collaboration becomes hands-on with visual workspaces

Paige: Hi. I'm Paige O'Neill, the chief marketing officer at Prysm and I'm going to talk to you today about the Prysm Visual Workplace. And, it's essentially an environment for collaboration that spans really any size screen. So here I'm in front of one of our larger 190-inch screens. We can also access the Prysm collaboration on any mobile device. And what it allows you to do is really pull any kind of content onto the screen. So, this happens to be a PowerPoint presentation. I can go in here, I can make changes to it, I can collaborate with team members, I can have team members connected on different screens in New York, in Japan, really around the world and you can pull up any kind of content.
 
We've got a touchscreen interface here where I can pull in different project files and be able to get them onto the screen in real time, so I can visualize a lot of different pieces of content together. I could also pull up a web browser if I wanted to and be able to collaborate with web content and what it enables you to do is just get a really rich set of your data. Get it all on the screen at the same time and be able to collaborate with team members remotely on whatever kind of device they happen to be on. I can then, once the meeting is finished, save all of the content in the cloud, so I can log out of this system, go into another area and if I go back to the meeting space that I was in before, everything is saved exactly as it was before.
 
And this is something that's very unique to Prysm. This ability to have really persistent content in the cloud, it enables greater productivity between teams, and enables them to go back and kind of pick up where they left off from a collaboration standpoint. So the Prysm Visual Workplace is something that we're finding really remote teams being able to embrace and leverage. You can pull up a whiteboard. I can make notes here if I want to keep track of action items with the teams. I can leverage a keyboard to type or I can just write on the screen itself, and so just some of the many possibilities that are available with the Prysm system.
 
Chris: Mezzanine is an immersive visual collaboration system that connects people and teams across distance, using multiple devices and multiple inputs to come together to collaborate, to make decisions, to deliver presentations effectively. It allows you to use multiple modes of control. I can use gesture to move things around effortlessly and zoom in and emphasize and de-emphasize content. I can also use any web browser and also an iPad or iPhone or Android device is also a typical control mechanism. It allows me to connect together across distance, teams that need to come together to bring products to market or make those decisions quickly and efficiently. It goes beyond traditional video conferencing in that it allows me to share multiple content feeds, such as my laptop system, which I have here. And what I'm going to do here is I'm actually going to collaborate with my folks who are located in Houston as well as some folks that are in other offices that are remote.
 
What I'm going to do is I am going to share my information that's live from my laptop, and then what I'll ask Jen to do, Jen is in Houston, she's also tethered into this meeting. She can also pick up where I left off and take control and add her own content feeds. So if Jen wants to go ahead and move things around, it's a completely democratic solution so that anybody that comes in whether...no matter what type of device they are using, whether it's their web browser or if they're using their iPad or their iPhone or their Android device. And Jen is going to share this back with me and now Frank is actually going to share another content feed with me, which is the Excel spreadsheet, which is the numbers for this project that we're working on. All right. So this really hits that first use case for Mezzanine, which we see as collaboration. All right, there's typically three use cases that we see Mezzanine is suited for. That would be collaboration -- we want to come together to make them solve a problem. Real-time decision-making: We've got multiple content feeds that all share back into a common workspace. And we want to deliver an effective presentation.
 
All right, so these are the first examples of how I can easily zoom in and emphasize or de-emphasize different data feeds based on the situation. And I can easily use any of these other modes to control it as well. So anybody who's located anywhere in the world can come back into this meeting, into this shared, common workspace and they all have equal access into controlling it. We call this concept Infopresence. It's that ability to deliver that information no matter where the information lives and who owns that subject matter to come back into a shared workspace and reach that decision.
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