HP, Dreamworks promote virtual meetings with Halo

Conferencing system seeks to eliminate latency

Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and Dreamworks LLC have developed a video-conferencing system that the companies say eliminates the annoying latency that can delay many virtual meetings.

The Halo Collaboration Studio, unveiled Monday, is a system of carefully placed plasma televisions, cameras, and microphones that allows two groups of up to six people to hold a live meeting in two separate locations. Conceived by Dreamworks as a response to travel concerns after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Halo allows meeting participants to make eye contact, share files and documents, and shout over each other in an attempt to be heard, just like a real meeting.

"This is real collaboration, when people get together in a room with a full exchange of ideas," said Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder and chief executive officer of Dreamworks, speaking from an HP Halo Collaboration Studio in Manhattan during the product's introduction. Katzenberg was joined in New York by HP Executive Vice President Vyomesh Joshi, head of HP's Imaging and Printing Group (IPG), and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Hector Ruiz, HP's first customer for Halo.

The Halo studios are designed to exact specifications, so that participants on the other side of the video conference appear to be in the same room. The demonstration room in Palo Alto held six chairs placed on one side of a semicircular table that faced three plasma displays installed on the wall with cameras mounted above each display. A fourth plasma display above the other three was used to display presentation slides or images generated by an overhead camera that could also focus on objects placed on the table.

Dreamworks designed the placement of the plasma displays and microphones to help animators and graphic designers in two of its California studios work together on future projects. HP was brought in to design the networking technology key to the entire system, Katzenberg said.

HP developed the Halo Video Exchange Network (HVEN) to carry the video, audio and data traffic between Halo sites, said Steve Froelich, senior network architect for visual collaboration systems at HP. The network is completely separate from a company's regular IP (Internet Protocol) network, but is based on the TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/IP) architecture and uses standard networking equipment, he said.

The minimum bandwidth required to run a Halo session is 45M bps (bits per second), Froelich said. HP's HVEN network can scale to faster networking speeds, but a 45M-bps network was used in Monday's demonstration without a noticeable lag in voice or video traffic.

Halo does not come cheap. Customers must purchase two rooms to start, and each room costs about $550,000 to install. The installation prices decrease if the customer commits to a larger purchase. HP must maintain the network for a monthly fee of $18,000 per room for U.S. customers; service costs will vary in other countries. Dreamworks will receive an unspecified royalty on each sale of a Halo system, but HP owns the product, Katzenberg said.

AMD has installed the system in its Austin, Texas, offices and Sunnyvale, California, headquarters, Ruiz said. Halo will pay for itself in less than a year with the savings on travel and related expenses, he claimed. But AMD's engineers and executives also appreciate the ability to collaborate with colleagues on a more personal level, and that type of satisfaction is difficult to quantify, he said.

HP has signed contracts with six customers for Halo deployments, including AMD and PepsiCo Inc., Nigro said. Internally, HP has deployed 13 Halo studios with plans to have a total of 40 rooms by the end of next year, he said. Dreamworks has deployed 10 rooms so far, an HP spokeswoman said.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.