A global conference, right at your desk

HP Labs technology powers HP SkyRoom, the company’s latest high fidelity video collaboration solution


By Simon Firth

HP Labs' researchers (from top to bottom) Dan Gelb, Bruce Culbertson and John Apostopoulos collaborating through HP Skyroom.

HP Labs' researchers (from left to
right) Dan Gelb, Bruce Culbertson
and John Apostolopoulos collaborating
through HP Skyroom.

When you’re at your desk and working through any kind of complex challenge, says HP Labs researcher John Apostolopoulos, nothing beats calling over a few colleagues for some instant feedback on your latest crack at the problem.

That remains true, he argues, even as work teams are becoming increasingly globally distributed. “There are still multiple times a day when any one of us wants to draft in multiple others,” suggests Apostolopoulos, who heads up HP’s Multimedia Communication and Networking Lab.

If your colleagues are half a world away, you can always call them on the phone. “But it would be far better,” Apostolopoulos argues, “if everyone could see both each other and the application that you are working on – just as you would if you all shared an office. And that’s what HP SkyRoom allows.”

HP SkyRoom is a new HD videoconferencing and collaboration solution from HP that builds on technical innovations from HP Labs. It allows up to four individuals to quickly connect face-to-face in a secure, high definition video conference right from their workspaces, wherever they are in the world, at any time, and to share and discuss dynamic, multimedia applications while they talk.

By allowing colleagues to easily share their work and communicate with the full range of facial and verbal signals that make person-to-person conversations both rich and highly time-efficient, SkyRoom promises to radically improve the productivity of teams located from a couple of buildings to a couple of continents apart.

A breakthrough solution

“HP SkyRoom is a breakthough product for quality videoconferencing for businesses,” says Jim Zafarana, vice president of HP's Workstation Global Business Unit, which designed HP SkyRoom based on technology from HP Labs. "Current Internet freeware lacks quality human interaction and the ability to share rich media, like video, animation or engineering drawings.”

HP SkyRoom offers video and audio with a combination of higher resolution, higher quality, frame rate and lower latency (the time lag that can make cell phone conversations highly awkward) than existing desktop systems. Using it is as easy as starting an instant message conversation.

State-of-the-art innovation

Research Scientist Dan Gelb

Principal Scientist Dan Gelb

At the core of HP SkyRoom are two innovations from HP Labs.

The first is HP’s Remote Graphics Software, a utility developed by HP Labs several years ago that lets users share whatever is on their desktop with others anywhere in the world in real time.

It allows you to share a high definition video, a 3-D model or an engineering application without sending the model, the data or the files. Companies like DreamWorks, Intel and Animal Logic were beta testers of HP SkyRoom, reporting greater productivity as they began to depend on the product more and more.

The other innovation is a software pipeline that takes high-quality audio and video inputs from the four SkyRoom collaborators, compresses them, streams and manages their flow to the other participants in the conversation, wherever they happen to be, and then decompresses them again to be displayed at their original high-quality resolution.

“These are all time-critical streams, so if you fall behind on one of them, then you’re going to notice it,” notes Dan Gelb, the HP Labs researcher who created the first working version of the pipeline, a technology that is also used in HP’s high-end Halo telepresence conferencing solution.

“If you’re sharing an application, that’s also taking up compute cycles,” adds Lab director Apostolopoulos. Altogether, he says, “there’re quite a few things flying around there that require a lot of computational capability and make this quite a technical challenge to solve.”

A whole new level of communication and collaboration

For the last six months employees from both HP and a number of outside companies have been running a beta version of HP SkyRoom. “The feedback has been both constructive and very positive,” says business VP Zafarana, who sees the technology being used in engineering, digital arts, scientific research, finance and medical fields among others.

Dr. Morgan DeFoort, co-director of Colorado State University’s Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory, has been using HP SkyRoom to develop better models for power generation projects all over the world. Typically, he says, sharing such models has meant having to “somehow render a video, compress that video, e-mail it out to folks, try and get feedback. It’s a very laborious process.”

Beyond enabling easy interactive sharing and discussion of models, says DeFoort, SkyRoom has helped overcome the communication problems that arise when you collaborate across language and cultural barriers. “A lot of these evaporate,” he says, “when you can see the person you are talking to . . . read their expressions, and capture some of that communication that really is lost when you’re just using conference calls.”

HP SkyRoom, concludes DeFoort, “really just brings our ability to communicate and collaborate to a new level.”