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Telepresence Intrapreneur - Cisco's Susie Wee leads from the Front

July 14, 2014 | Telepresence Options


WEE HAS BEEN INTRAPRENEURING at some of the largest tech firms on the planet in the world's best labs focused on telepresence, multimedia, HDTV, software-defined networking, and a dozen other disciplines clustered around visual collaboration. When she's not playing hockey... a college athlete at MIT she's still on the lookout for someone with some ice when she has the time. That's right, Ms. Wee, epitome of genial politeness, isn't afraid to "clang and bang" with the big boys and girls.


Wee worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an intern and HP Labs in Palo Alto for her first job after graduating from MIT with her Ph.D.. When HP inherited what would become Halo from DreamWorks, the company leaned on the Labs to take Jeffrey Katzenberg's pet project and turn it into a globally replicable product value-added with HP intellectual property. The HP team beat Cisco to market with Halo in December of 2005 with a six-seat group telepresence environment that had an MSRP of $550,000 a room with another $18,000 per room, per month for network and management. Customers began buying them and loved the experience: bullet-proof reliability, flawless video, great data collaboration, the best graphical user interface for video calling ever, best integration of a ceiling visualizer, and the first inter-company directory of business partners to easily connect with. It offered a glimpse into a future where I can call you from my conference room and we can have a conversation and do work as if we were in the same physical space and it just works every time.


Shortly after HP Halo took off at HP, so did Wee, plucked from HP Labs into a vice presidency on the business side of HP in 2008 where the word "Experience" shows up for the first time in her title. Having the word "Experience" in her title and the end user at heart is a trend that continues to this day. In 2012, after a year of settling in at Cisco and taking the reins of a newly formed collaboration experience team, she had an off-site kick-off meeting at a team member's house where the first order of business was creating their strategy and priorities. A few months later they took on the challenge of figuring out why they all needed to meet in person. Creating an environment where they could replicate the collaborative dynamics of "shoulder-to-shoulder" work (but augmenting it with tools, ease-of-use, information resources and apps) became their goal.


Click Here to Read Sub-Article "What is Cisco Spring Roll and Why is it Important?" by Telepresence Options publisher Howard S. Lichtman

Wee and her colleagues Qibin Sun, a Distinguished Engineer, and Edwin Zhang, an experience designer, applied for and won a $1,200,000 grant from the Cisco Tech Fund that John Chambers set up to encourage just this type of intrapreneurship. Not a bad result for less money than Cisco probably spends on toilet paper a year. This intrapreneurship thing might have some legs! The fund was started two years ago and is directed by Joel Bion, SVP of Cisco Research and Advanced Development, and David Ward, SVP and Chief Technology and Architect Officer of Development. It has 113 projects in the works and has funded 10 percent of them to a total of about $20 million so far. Spring Roll is the first project they have gone public on so have a hit on their hands.


The name Project Spring Roll came from the fact that the original Cisco Tech Fund project was approved in the spring (April 2012) and Susie's team uses agile methods with rolling iterations. And, according to Susie, spring rolls are tasty and the name had a bit of an Asian flair, which matched her innovation team which is based in Shanghai.

Right now Spring Roll is just a proof-of-concept project on steroids that combines a life-size head-to-toe telepresence environment and a sophisticated user interface and set of collaborative tools that both simplifies and improves collaborative sessions both locally and with remote participants. The telepresence conferencing capability alone has a slew of innovations: a shoulder-to-shoulder telepresence environment that is optimized for interactive whiteboarding and large format data visualization. Throw in a video wall that displays the entire remote scene and its jaw dropping.

But wait, there's more. Wee gave me a sneak peak of a video showing a remarkably advanced user interface and software tool kit, plus a unified GUI for the whole experience with some initial Apps layered in. Apps that bring BYOD mobile devices to the party integrate remote users through Cisco WebEx, interactive whiteboarding, and more. It already plugs into Cisco TelePresence, so it can reach any Cisco TelePresence system, endpoint or mobile client.

Cisco gave the world its first glimpse of Spring Roll at CiscoLive in May, where pictures show dozens of DevNet software developers pressing in, trying to no doubt figure out what's the business equivalent of Candy Crush once employees get the ability to buy apps for the conference room on the company account.


It's not just a big idea, it's a whole bunch of big ideas going on simultaneously in a proof-of-concept that you can just feel straining on the leash.

Telepresence Options spoke with Wee about Spring Roll, her gig at Cisco, and where she thinks the future of telepresence and visual collaboration is headed. What follows is the abbreviated version. You can get the full story at www.TelepresenceOptions. com/SusieWee

TELEPRESENCE OPTIONS (TPO):What were you up to in academia and how did it shape your path?

SUSIE WEE (SW): When it came time for me to pick my PhD thesis at MIT, I got to work with an amazing professor, William Schreiber. In the beginning of his career he took black and white television and made it into color television. In the middle of his career, he made black and white printing into color printing. He pioneered the technology to print color newspapers. At the end of his career he made television into high definition television (HDTV).

When I was looking for a PhD thesis advisor, he was actually retired. This was the late '80s and early '90s. He was a little bit dissatisfied with the direction that HDTV was going, so he actually came out of retirement, took on me and one of my colleagues as his last PhD students, and we did our PhD theses with him on HDTV.

At that time, computers could not process video in real time. In order to compress HDTV video frames, we would write our software and let it run overnight, hoping our code was working correctly and no one else would kill the job. Then we'd go back to the lab in the morning and if all went well we would have a handful of processed frames to analyze.

It was pretty early for HDTV, and we didn't even have HDTV displays or HDTV cameras. We had to work with studios to get high-quality video, and a high-quality video display cost a hundred thousand dollars. We were really working ahead of the technology. I remember naysayers questioning why we were working on HDTV. "No one can see the difference anyways." It took another decade or two for HDTV everyone can see the difference now.


TPO: You were at HP Labs when it was the first pure research lab to look at immersive telepresence. What promising died on the vine and what made it out alive?

SW: I was at HP Labs for 10 years and when I first got there in 1996, most people were working on imaging research and I joined to do video research in areas like video coding and video transcoding. In my research we were anticipating a world where video would be all-digital, from video capture to video storage and transmission to video display, even though at that time most things were analog. So we were leaping ahead and thinking about the algorithms that would be needed in an all-digital world.

Another exciting project was mobile video. Back then in 1999 or so cellphones were only starting to have cameras in them and the most advanced mobile technology was in Japan. We formed a partnership between HP and NTT DoCoMo to anticipate a world with mobile video and we developed a 4G mobile streaming media content delivery network. Many of these technologies are used for video delivery today.

After that, we worked on what's now known as immersive telepresence. Jeffrey Katzenberg at DreamWorks had a couple of studios, one in the UK and one in California, and he needed to make his movies working in those different studios. He was making Shrek and he had a requirement that he had to review every single frame himself. The speed at which the studio could produce movies depended on the speed at which Katzenberg could review and give feedback to the team. So he had his IT guys build a very high-quality studio to allow communication between two places. This is what became known as the HP Halo system. They were looking for partners to help bring this to market because DreamWorks makes movies and doesn't sell video products to enterprises, so the partnership made a lot of sense.

At the time I was in the mobile and media systems lab and eventually became the director of the lab, but when DreamWorks came along I made a big bet and put most of my lab on it. We started developing some awesome technologies for what is now immersive telepresence. The key there was that we challenged all the assumptions we had made around the user experience and technology of video networking and video conferencing. All the systems were really fighting against limitations of hardware and bandwidth, which was quite limited at the time. We changed all the assumptions by using studio-quality movie cameras and codecs and fat network pipes- this is now used in HDTV. It was all about thinking of the user experience first then developing the technology to deliver that experience.

TPO: What do you do at Cisco? What is Spring Roll? What was the impetus of the idea?

SW: When I first came into Cisco, I was "CTEO" for collaboration. My boss and I made the title Chief Technology and Experience Officer since he knew about my passion for technology and user experience. Then about a year-and-a-half ago I moved to the central CTO office so that I could take this experience-plus-technology approach and apply it across the whole portfolio, extending beyond collaboration. I'm now the VP and CTO of Networked Experiences. I always tend to have "experience" somewhere in my job title. My team and I are working on innovative end-user experiences, such as Augmented Collaboration. We are also looking at the user experience associated with managing and operating networks, especially in the world of software-defined networking. We have a Network UI Toolkit called NeXt for visualizing network topologies for SDN to help network operators to design, deploy, monitor and troubleshoot the network.

My team and I have also created Cisco's new developer program, Cisco DevNet, aimed at developers who want to create solutions based on Cisco technologies, thinking ahead to the world where the network is a true platform for innovation. We just had our first DevNet developer conference and hackathon at Cisco Live and it was an amazing success- it's incredible to see the appetite of the developers who want to build innovative solutions around the network with software-defined networking, indoor location and mobility, collaboration, and the Internet of Things.

Now we're focusing on creating new end-user experiences on top of the network. We have an innovation project called Augmented Collaboration, and it's codenamed Spring Roll. It has 10 HDTV screens in two rows of five screens with an IR-touch bezel around the outside frame making it all a multi-touch surface. The screens are arranged in an L-shaped configuration. Four of the screens are on one side, two of the screens are at 45 degrees, and then the other four screens are at 90 degrees. On one side we use six screens to show full head-to-toe telepresence video. We find the head-to-toe telepresence video provides a very natural communication experience with the people in the remote site because it conveys context and body language in a way that is superior to more typical head-and- shoulders video. People can move around the room freely without the boundaries of fixed seating locations, and this allows people to interact much more naturally.

On the other side of the L we have the four screens used for interactive content collaboration. Both rooms see the exact same content collaboration screen where they can share presentations and write on a white board. You can flip through presentations very easily with a two-finger swiping gesture. You can annotate and draw on the slides and on the whiteboard, and people on each side can do it simultaneously. In addition, we integrated a mobile device experience with an iPad client. This allows you to participate in the meeting without having to run up to the board to contribute, providing a new means of natural interaction through your personal device. The iPad client lets you participate in the content collaboration portion of the meeting when you are in one of the Spring Roll rooms or when you are outside the rooms joining into the meeting through a regular telepresence or WebEx session.

The biggest challenge in creating Spring Roll was around user experience simplification- we wanted to create an inviting experience that was simple and easy to use and we wanted to hide the technology that was needed to deliver it. When people come into Spring Roll they feel good and know they are in a designed experience. Their eyes light up in the same way they did when they first saw HDTV and immersive telepresence.

HSL: Final question: What do you see the future of telepresence and visual collaboration?

SW: First of all, at Cisco the commitment to collaboration is very strong. We don't want to just have people go into big expensive rooms and then be able to collaborate. We want you to collaborate when you're mobile with your iPhone, iPad, Android device, laptop, and still have a full collaboration experience.

Also, we're looking at lowering costs to make this more accessible to more people.

In terms of the broader industry and where things are going, something that we've shown with augmented collaboration is that if you do touch and gestures very well, you can have a more natural experience. Touch is what enables you to get that whole interactive experience. We're actually integrating touch into our video telepresence products so that we can integrate a video and interactive content collaboration experience like Augmented Collaboration.

Another big area is not only looking at a single mode or device for collaboration, but using multiple modes together by using different devices at the same time. We have a feature called intelligent proximity that automatically pairs your device with the telepresence environment that you're in and allows you to start using your device in the same context as the broader collaboration session. If you want to walk up to the board, you can do that. But if you just want to text something into your device and contribute to the session, then you can do that too. What we are starting to see is that people have different modes of collaboration going on at the same time. These tools can come together, and you can use the best technology for the right task at the right time. Instead of being completely separate experiences, they should be seamlessly integrated.

I'm going to bet that even higher resolutions such as ultra HD will become more important, especially as we have more affordable large displays, higher network bandwidths, and more head-to- toe telepresence video experiences. There will be new touch and gesture technologies to improve input to mobile devices--this will greatly improve how we interact with mobile devices today and with our broader collaborative environment. We're going to have more sensors on mobile devices and in the environment to help people interact more freely and naturally as we enter the world of the Internet of Things. Also, robotics will play a larger role in providing natural communication experiences, as it will help people have a physical presence in remote locations and give them the ability to move around that remote location. The challenge behind all of it is not only to develop the technology, but to drive it from a user experience first perspective. The future is bright, and all of these technologies are going to help provide even better interactive collaboration years ahead. TPO

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About the Author
Howard_Lichtman_ArrayHoward S. Lichtman is the publisher of Telepresence Options, president of the visual collaboration consultancy Human Productivity Lab, and C20 and Board Director @ Array Telepresence. He co-founded a company in 2001 that built visual collaboration environments with stand-up presentation, IP video over QoS networks, interactive whiteboarding, and large format data visualization. At the time he was unable to even conceive of augmented reality, "bring & fling", iPads, or Apps.

Telepresence Intrapreneur - Cisco's Susie Wee leads from the Front by Telepresence Options

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