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Now Meeting: The Future of Remote Conferencing?

Aug. 6, 2015
The Microsoft Surface Hub is big, bold, beautiful and broad enough to appeal to all industries. It might also revolutionize the meeting space and lead remote users to enjoy a more engaged experience.

REDMOND, Washington — The new Windows 10 operating system has grabbed most of the recent Microsoft headlines — and much deserved, thanks to the more than 14 million downloads during its first 24 hours of availability last week – but another new item just as important for the business world is fast approaching from the Pacific Northwest.

The Microsoft Surface Hub is an oversized touchscreen tablet that aims to make meetings more efficient and revolutionize remote conferencing. It’s big, it’s bold, it’s beautiful and it’s broad enough to appeal to all industries. And again, just to be clear, it’s big. Physically and metaphorically, it’s really big.

Microsoft teased the new product, which measures in at 84 inches or a more economical 55 inches, back in January as part of the Windows 10 introduction, then doled out more and more information during the months following. The overarching question that drove its design, development and production, according to Microsoft devices group senior director Hayete Gallot, was, “How do we empower the group?”

“Phones, tablets, you have all those, and you’re super efficient,” Gallot said. “But when it comes to groups, you go to a room and you find a projector, a big white board, maybe a screen, and it’s all disparate, it’s not integrated, it doesn’t have the same power you do on your individual devices.”

Microsoft figures we’re so used to our devices, no matter their size, that when we gather for meetings — in person, or remotely — we expect the same efficiency from white boards. But white boards are seldom connected to the cloud, and they’re compatible with our everyday devices even less often.

The Surface Hub has an opportunity to solve those problems and, in the process, revolutionize the meeting space, from the time required to start meetings (12 minutes, according to Gallot), to being able to store and save every word and image you scribble on the screen (drop it right into the cloud for later, rather than snapping photos or manually copying notes), to a more engaged remote experience.

About “54% of meetings have remote attendees,” Gallot said, “and all of them are frustrated by the time they go on mute. They don’t listen, they send emails, they schedule social networks, all other things but the meeting. We use two cameras” — Kinect, the same technology first used with the Xbox Live — “so when a presenter is writing, they can connect with the user.

“If I’m gazing, the camera will pick up my eyes so I’m always connected with remote users.”

The Surface Hub also features an ultra high-definition display (4K for the 84-inch screen), simple touch controls and microphones, along with Microsoft software like OneNote and Skype for Business.

I had an opportunity to use the Surface Hub during a Microsoft campus visit earlier this summer. I attend conferences remotely at least once or twice every week and — full disclosure — I’m not always tuned in to every word. Part of that is because of the lack of a connection with speakers, part of that is working in an ever-more-multitasking world. The Surface Hub can help solve the first problem, not so much the second problem.

The Surface Hub will transition perfectly into conference rooms, though, int college classrooms, perhaps even slide into some high school classrooms. It isn’t a perfect product — Microsoft Research members Zhengyou Zhang and Yinpeng Chang are already working on display details that will allow the cameras to display presenters on-screen, moving, writing and providing another connection point for remote users — but it’s better than probably every other conferencing tool available. And with a $20,000 price tag for the 84-inch version or $7,000 for the 55-incher, it’s more affordable than most, too.

Order one now, and you might receive it with the first batch, expected to ship in early September, and decide for yourself whether it can really revolutionize the meeting.

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