Is 'hologram' tech changing the corporate world?

Hologram telepresence is finding itself a new home in the corporate market. Reece Webb finds out how the technology can disrupt this ever-evolving world.

Hologram telepresence, or ‘enhanced telepresence’, is a technique that allows users to appear virtually in a life-size, realistic form. Despite not being true, photographic recordings of light fields, ‘hologram’ has become a widely accepted term for technology that presents virtual participants realistically. As unlikely as it may seem at a glance, this method is finding a home for itself in the corporate space, enhancing the meeting and town hall experience in surprising ways.

The concept itself is nothing new: Going back to the days of 1977 where stand-out examples such as George Lucas’ Star Wars brought us our first glimpse of videoconferencing holograms on the big screen. This time it isn't Princess Leia pleading with Obi-Wan Kenobi that he is 'her only hope', but our colleagues, bosses and friends appearing in a life-size, realistic form for more natural, lifelike meetings.

While initially conceived as a work of fiction, what is the reality behind the adoption of this technology in the corporate world? Miguel Churruca, marketing and communications director, Brainstorm, explains: “Telepresence, teleportation, whatever you want to call it, is something we’re familiar with. We’ve worked on virtual sets for decades, so bringing that into the corporate world was a fairly straightforward step for us. Right before the pandemic, we were working on creating a different way to communicate and present or do conferencing for advanced users.

“There was a need for virtual technology, to bring in new possibilities for people that were stuck at home. That really boosted the technology and changed the requirements of users.”

The corporate world was quick to adopt virtual technologies that offered a way for executives to interact instantaneously around the globe, and telepresence offered large companies a way to stand out and be seen in a life-size scale.

One such company that offers a means to access this world is Proto, a manufacturer of ‘holoportation’ boxes that allow users to interact with in-room audiences on a real-world scale.

David Nussbaum, CEO, Proto, explains: “Most of our customers are corporate customers and Fortune 500 companies. We’ve done work with VirginMedia, 02, T-Mobile, Verizon and many more. We are ‘beaming’ executives, CEOs and other business leaders from office to office. These are going into conference rooms, innovation labs and much more.

“[When it comes to using this technology] there’s something to be said about non-verbal cues. When somebody appears in the room, in a realistic size, there is an emotional connection and a physical connection that doesn’t exist when you’re looking at somebody on a flat 2D screen. With telepresence people are more believable, more engaging, and conversations tend to be more of a conversation rather than a communication. Our technology is where Zoom leaves off and where physically being there begins.”

Enhanced performance 

The Covid-19 pandemic provided a jumpstart in adoption for telepresence in the corporate space. With executives forced into working from home, businesses needed new ways to engage with their internal and external audiences. For Ian O’Connell, director, Musion 3D, telepresence was not designed with corporate applications in mind, but has found a home through unique applications that go beyond the skillset of the average human being.

O’Connell says: “Our ambition for telepresence was not for it to be an office-based system, as we believed there is not much that could be brought into an office. There are two main types of telepresence: videoconferencing telepresence and the more ambitious kind of telepresence, which I call performance telepresence.

“When most corporations want to use [telepresence] for internal use, they don’t want to shout loudly about how it’s used, however there are some great things happening in the world of corporate communications. One example is live telepresence using artificial intelligence. You can film a person speaking English through live telepresence, and use AI to deliver a summary speech in French, Japanese or any other language. This is one of the many things that artificial intelligence is going to give a live avatar that goes beyond what you can deliver as a live human being. The question for corporate communication is: ‘What can a hologram add to the skillset of a live person?’

“Holographic telepresence has been around enough for people to understand that it’s not going to replace telepresence as we know it in a boardroom,” continues O’Connell, “because boardrooms are not built to have 3D apparatus at one end. What you tend to have today is Teams/ Zooms style screens.”

Getting intimate 

While traditional videoconferencing remains the norm in many corporate boardrooms around the globe, an emerging technology that shows potential to disrupt this trend in the corporate world is Logitech’s new telepresence prototype: Project Ghost.

Shown for the first time at ISE 2023, Project Ghost offers a form of Pepper’s Ghost that combines comfortable furnishings and life-size engagement to create a videoconferencing booth with a ‘holographic’ twist.

Rishi Kumar, director, alliances and go-to market, B2B group, Logitech, explains: “With Project Ghost, we have taken those elements and rearranged them with workplace design principals. The first thing is eye gaze: We’re all looking at each other on a screen, but not looking into the webcam which would feel more natural to the remote participants, but it breaks the experience. You get a feeling of presence if you’re life size, not small squares. We’ve taken these elements, rearranged them and that’s Project Ghost. It resembles telepresence, but the key difference is that it uses the videoconferencing platforms that you’re used to using, and IT is used to deploying [Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Meet etc].

“It is also going to be affordable. Think of all the components that go into the meeting room: The furniture, the chairs, what you expect to pay for that should be on the same order of magnitude.”

While hybrid working has offered greater accessibility and eco-friendly options that trumps globe-trotting for meetings, a survey by Barco found that a quarter of workers feel stressed by the meeting technology they have to use. Similarly, a report from Stanford University identified close-up eye contact, the ability to view oneself on a call, lack of movement and the lack of non-verbal communication as key reasons for burnout and fatigue with videoconferencing platforms.

To combat this, Logitech worked closely with Steelcase to design a booth that offers privacy and a relaxed feeling. “There are lots of design elements [with Project Ghost] around privacy, feeling relaxed and sharing the same space together”, says Kumar, “It’s about getting that warmth and relaxed feeling that you can struggle to get in telepresence. You want to have these more intimate conversations that you wouldn’t expect to have in a meeting room with five people. This is the touchpoint that you could have with your manager or a CEO-to-CEO conversation to build relationships.”

Playing the field

While this technology holds an advantage for intimate corporate conversations, telepresence technology has also found a unique gap in the market to appeal to wider audiences, both internal and external, putting a more human face to a company despite the implied distance of remote participation.

Churruca says: “Corporations need to be effective. If you want to plan a 10-15 minute meeting that happens frequently during the week, you just want to click a button and go for it [using videoconferencing]. You don’t really require telepresence. A town hall requires presentation and higher standards. Medium to large corporations are looking for that kind of technology for these kinds of events.”

Brainstorm offers Edison, a real-time virtual production system that allows users to create augmented-reality presentations to enhance the telepresence experience. “Edison is an evolution of our technology that has been designed for a smaller package”, adds Churruca, “You don’t need a designer or producer to run it, it can be controlled by users who are not [proficient] in the AV arena.

“You can be in a space and insert real-time augmented reality graphics or slides [to enhance presentations]. If you are in a hybrid environment and you have access to chroma[1]keying, you can be inserted anywhere with just a few clicks. Anybody can create an immersive presentation with Edison and be part of the environment. It’s not just a full screen presentation with a small, picture-in-picture screen, you can show and interact with your presentation very easily. You can use an AR environment, a virtual environment or even an XR environment.”

Nussbaum adds: “[Telepresence] is the ultimate hybrid work tool. It is the best way to engage with people, whether they’re customers, competitors or colleagues. Whether it’s one-to-one or one-to-many. We often talk about Proto being used for keynote speakers to do a presentation and that’s how it’s often used, but it’s also now being put inside conference rooms.

“The person is left out when they’re on the computer screen and everybody else is sat in the room. That person is considered the least important person in the room, they’re just considered to be a screen. When you beam into a place and appear like you’re there, you’re taken more seriously, you’re more engaging and it’s like you’re there. We’re seeing this happen with a corporate customer who saved billions of dollars in travel expenses by using our technology.”

Future thinking

While ‘holographic’ and telepresence technology is making a foothold for itself in the market, O’Connell believes that there is plenty more work to be done and an opportunity is presenting itself in this growing space.

“I still think that telepresence in the corporate space is still going to have its day [and mature]”, says O’Connell, “What’s going to make it happen is LED. LED, independently of the hologram/telepresence market, is slowly replacing legacy LCD and projection systems in the office space and that is what is going to kickstart what we’re doing in the corporate market with telepresence.

“The place for corporate telepresence will be where you have a broad or public audience, bigger than 20 people in a boardroom. This could be an R&D facility where an engineer is presenting a 3D product visualisation, for example.”

However, it is worth bearing in mind that while this technology can play an essential role in the corporate space, it must be used with purpose and skill to be effective.

Churruca closes: “Every new thing that comes into the AV and communication area becomes a trending topic, but doing a virtual event for the sake of it is useless. You have to have a purpose, a proper design, and craft a message accordingly. This is just another possibility for companies, to reach their audience, be it internal, external or a mix, in a different way.

“When corporations understand the technology and the possibilities that virtual presence delivers, they will be able to craft their message and design their event schedule to match these needs and make the most of it.”

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