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Steelcase sets out to discover where HD video links will take the next-generation office

July 13, 2011 | William Zimmerman
By Matthew Gryczan, Crain's Detroit Business

Steelcase Inc. President and CEO Jim Hackett sees that his colleague David Kelley is gathering things on his desk to run off to a meeting, so he waves his hand to flag Kelley down for a couple of quick questions. 

They had talked earlier that morning about the news of the day. Now Hackett wants Kelley's opinion on a new business venture. 

"Are you leaving, David?" Hackett asks the founder and chairman of the design firm Ideo. Kelley stops his bustle, sits on the edge of his desk and nods that he has a minute.

The two men talk as if they were six feet from each other -- instead of 2,300 miles and three time zones apart. 

They had met through Steelcase's "wormhole," a 24-hour, high-definition video connection between Hackett's office at corporate headquarters in Grand Rapids and Kelley's office at Ideo in Palo Alto, Calif. Hackett and Kelley say the wormhole allows them to behave as if their offices were next door. 

Two floors down in the Grand Rapids headquarters, researchers are learning about how people will interact with Velma -- a robot that theoretically can serve as a person's eyes and ears anywhere in the world. 

"We are studying the social, technical -- the weirdness factor -- of me becoming a robot," said Lisa Mead, a service delivery leader at Steelcase. "How do we apply our 100 years' worth of knowing how people work effectively and expand it to now include what a person needs to operate a robot, what makes a space friendly for a robot?"

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