Strap yourselves in! Jeff Rodman, co-founder of Polycom in 1990 and today, our Chief Evangelist, offers his guest view on the technology likely to shape our industry in the decade ahead:
Major technologies are emerging in all fields today. Which of these are the keystones that can drive human collaboration? And how will they affect - and be affected by - the ways that people work together? This is a look at some of these trends, now and coming, and which of these, from social change to synthetic intelligence and metamaterials, will change our everyday collaborating lives through the next decade.
Language Barriers Dissipate
Working across language barriers is already easing. This is destined to have a truly transformative effect in diverse regions such as Asia Pacific. Live transcription is becoming more practical, and limited live cross-language translation is beginning to appear. What's needed is a practical system for this, and the next decade will see continued convergence to an asymptote that merges very high accuracy, low latency (low translation delay), large vocabulary, and compatibility with a wide range of voices, accents, and acoustic environments (if any of these are less than perfect, most systems today degrade rapidly). We're unlikely to reach perfection in ten years, but we and our solutions will adapt to each other, and become much better at harvesting meaningful value from even moderate accuracy and vocabulary.
Virtual co-location crystallizes
It's no longer enough to be able to communicate; the goal for everyone has moved to "like being there". The experience of collaborating needs to break out of the tangle of glitches and inconsistencies that make remote communication more opaque than in-person interaction.
Big steps have already been taken, as is found in Immersive Telepresence (ITP) systems. While these systems are still relatively large and expensive, the underlying technologies will continue to improve and broaden, yielding a practical Personal Telepresence. There are multiple paths that support this change, including body extensions like conventional and VR headsets and biological implants, more precise ambient technologies such as metamaterials, finely-coordinated illumination systems, and directed ultrasonics, and as is most likely, combinations of both contact-based and ambience-based techniques to manage the local environment.
The old desktop telephone had an audio handset, a hookswitch, a dial or dialpad, and you could talk to someone else only if they had one too. Remaining old-style telephones, as they exist today, will be museum pieces in ten years, but new generations of the desktop device will continue to evolve. And there's a reason for this.
A desktop device is built atop a powerful foundation that cannot be equaled, in many ways. It is connected to the network from a known environment through an extreme high-reliability, high-bandwidth connection. At the low end, it may still provide a primarily audio connection (although with high-fidelity HD Voice, essential for talking with people having unpredictable accents and vocabularies); at the high end, it becomes a comprehensive personal and extensible ITP system. One of the enduring virtues of the desktop platform is that it is the only endpoint that can be absolutely guaranteed by an IT organization. Its wired connection brings power independence from battery-charging concerns, and its assured network connection brings independence from the vagaries of a wireless environment, forgotten passwords, and potentially porous wireless security environments.
With user-supplied devices (BYOD), the users are often on their own for tech support. By putting these functions on the network platform instead, even a hardware desktop device inherits the benefits of a "cloud" implementation, where management can be optimized, performance maximized, and cost reduced.
Meetings metadata, in which the statistics of meeting operations are captured for later analysis, is becoming a larger part of efficient conference management. But even so, most information in a meeting is lost. Who first made a suggestion? Were they sitting in a chair or sketching something out on a whiteboard when they said it? If they were sketching, what were they sketching? Who else said it, and was that before or after?
What happens in the physical spaces in which people collaborate carries enormous information, and I call the aggregation of this data "metamedia," the metadata of live interaction. Not only meeting dynamics, but the recognition of who are the best idea-creators, managers, or revenue builders, can come from a deeper understanding of exactly what happened in and across discussions and meetings. This is what effective use of collected metamedia brings - not only by today's standards, but by the continually-evolving understanding of how human dynamics affect value.
There are many more trends continuing to develop, but these are some of the most foundational technology trends that will be driving the coming evolution in how people collaborate.
WORKSTYLES IN THE NEXT TEN YEARS
Distributed working becomes the norm
For many jobs, spending the day by sitting in a corporate cubicle or office is becoming a pointless formality, like wearing a bow tie. Even though it's just starting to develop, Personal Telepresence is allowing people to call into meetings from cars and coffee shops, to give formal video presentations from home offices, and to stay engaged via text, email, IM, and other tools that are emerging daily. At the same time, new collaboration tools continue to emerge that make physical location increasingly irrelevant.
Some jobs, like warehouse clerk or lab technician, really do require being in a specific physical place. But for many others, added costs like real estate/HVAC/biosupport (figure on a footprint of at least 6m2/person) and average commute times (1 hour/day) are hard to justify. For the majority of knowledge workers, traveling to an "office" will become a quaint custom, and the companies that continue to mandate it will find themselves hiring from a shrinking pool of candidates - those who can't get jobs anywhere else, and those that happen to live nearby. Managers and companies are becoming more aware of the benefits of a distributed workforce, and are already developing methods to manage it effectively.
"Content" vaults the river
A traditional meeting is built of conversation, visual interaction, and projected slides, often augmented with handouts and pre-distributed documents. Because it has high need but bare solutions at present, "content" (any combination of recorded audio with still and moving video) is where some of the most dramatic and revolutionary changes will be happening, and they will occur in three places: source, channel, and destination.
The sources of content will grow from the current "stay up late the night before and finish the slides" generation model to the addition of automated agents that research, reduce, and present content on demand, in the course of a meeting. We've already seen glimpses of these technologies, availability is just a matter of time and will be increasingly recognized as a competitive edge.
Content availability will grow through the development of fuller and more complete open standards to enable its wide sharing independent of specific vendors. Today's closed ecosystems will begin to interoperate, and vendors will compete through the quality of their service rather than its availability.
And where its display is currently dispatched to a single screen somewhere off the edge of a videoconference, content will become integrated with the full visual and aural collaboration experience. Flexible management of the meeting environment will be the norm, with the roles of display areas changing to adapt as meeting needs change and the relative meaning of media channels shifts.
Today, if you're on a many-user videoconference, there's no question as to how different participants have called in because the quality of their connections gives them away - cellphone, laptop soft-client, formal video room, are all markedly different. Yet it is what you say, hear, contribute and take away that matters, not what kind of phone you're using. One key element of the goal of "location irrelevance" is that everyone can participate equally well and is perceived as being equal. But right now, users on mobile systems are usually at a disadvantage. Even today, there's an unfair advantage in physical presence because it allows some to physically dominate a discussion regardless of the quality of their contribution. This will change. As solutions are refined, this "good old boy" advantage will rightfully disappear, and a smart observation or sly wink from a remote participant will be perceived as having the same cogency, subtlety and timeliness as one from someone sitting directly at the Director's right elbow.
Implementations Don't Matter
A function can be hosted in a single-purpose chip or in rented time on a blade in the cloud; what matters is how that function advances the quality and clarity of collaboration. There are no miracles here, no need to harness antigravity or scoop up cauldrons of dark matter. What we've discussed here is all built on foreseeable trends in usage, and on advances in already-existing technology. The future is among us.