There was one silver lining to the Great Recession: Around when the Dow dipped, video-based telecommunications began improving enough to make this one-time Dick Tracy–esque futuristic technology—a telephone combined with a television!—available and affordable to the masses. Today, Skype is the best known (and probably cheapest) of many options. But other products offer additional options for sharing information. Each of these professionals represents a firm that chose a different approach to incorporating video communications.


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    Credit: Peter Arkle

Nectarios Lazaris, Woods Bagot

As a network of global offices without a headquarters, it’s important for Woods Bagot employees from Sydney to New York to Abu Dhabi to communicate frequently. So the firm, seeking the trust and service of a large provider and ease of use, chose Cisco’s TelePresence system. Today the firm can host over 50 concurrent videoconferences between its offices around the world or with clients. “We needed these to work wherever our clients take us,” explains Woods Bagot’s Nectarios Lazaris, who is based in Sydney. “The other key thing for us was ensuring it was an easy-to-use solution. It had to be just as easy as making a phone call. In the testing that my team did, the Cisco solution was by far the best. And also as an organization, the Cisco team showed longevity in their roles and a true passion in what they were selling. They weren’t just sales people trying to flip a dime.” To not only communicate via video but share information, “we have document cameras that are ceiling mounted,” Lazaris adds. “The design teams can project down onto drawings and physically mock it up that way. But the way we do our actual document sharing is by Microsoft Link, which we’ve incorporated into our TelePresence system. It had to be really just something very intuitive that you could embed into the culture of the organization. It really has become second nature to people using the systems.”


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    Credit: Peter Arkle

Warwick Hunt, Studio H Landscape Architecture

The document-sharing portion of the equation—particularly the chance to manipulate each other’s screens—is what got landscape architect Warwick Hunt interested in Fuze Meeting. “I looked at a lot of the other competitors, and I liked their user interface the most,” he says. “I liked that I could drop in high-resolution images, that you can put up your plan and really draw on the plan—both parties at the same time. It’s much easier to understand. Say there’s a water feature image you like. You can drop it in right there. There’s a lot more interactive interaction with the client. I’ve uploaded pictures into Skype, but it’s like an instant messenger. The person on the other end would download it and upload it on their screen. In Fuze, you’d drop it into the display and it’s right there, and then if it’s an image you can draw on it easily. Say you create a plan in AutoCAD and send it by PDF: It’s really hard sometimes to explain what’s going on. But when it’s in front of them on the screen and they can see your cursor, it’s just so much more clear.” Hunt believes even if the economy keeps gaining steam, the attractiveness will remain. “It’s something I’ve been telling people: design is headed in that direction. A lot of designers are doing international work. The principals are flying over to Vietnam and China. I think you can do a lot of that over the Web.”


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    Credit: Peter Arkle

Tim Milam, FXFowle

“We definitely use Skype,” says Tim Milam, FXFowle’s managing director. “It’s very inexpensive and easy to use. You can do it from your desk. But there are quality issues at times, and countries that block access. There have been times when we couldn’t use it.” FXFowle’s laptops, desktops, and other hardware are integrated with LifeSize videoconferencing. “The great thing about it is the quality,” Milam says. “You can see people on the other side clearly. In certain types of meetings, that’s helpful. The firm has experienced bandwidth difficulties with all the gigabytes going back and forth. And whomever is on the other side, they have to have the same capability.” Milam says the firm also supplements LifeSize and Skype with GoToMeeting. “It would be ideal to have it all in one thing,” he adds. “Flexibility is important, for one team to be able to set it up immediately.” Milam mentions the sustainability side of videoconferencing: reducing travel also reduces one’s carbon footprint. Even so, he reasons, architects “really value that face to face interaction. It’s hard to get away from that when you’re talking about design. But clearly it’s more of a global workplace now. Fewer people are local. There’s a plus side to not have trips when you don’t need to.”


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    Credit: Peter Arkle

Reg Prentiss, Gensler

At Gensler, the worldwide staff is large enough to merit a multiplatform approach. Any person visiting is the highest part of the tier, says Gensler’s Reg Prentiss. That travel and connection is still an important part of doing business, particularly globally, where getting to know their culture and company is important. Gensler has a global videoconferencing infrastruture, he says. Every office has at least one conference room with built-in videoconferencing. For external connections, the firm uses GoToMeeting. “You can have up to 25 people on a collaboration station, where anyone can share their screen with the group,” Prentiss says. “So with clients and consultants and contractors, it’s a very powerful tool when you’re discussing visual material. You can also give someone else in the group your screen to manipulate. You can take over your screen and use their mouse. If you’re working with, say, an engineering consultant, they could start manipulating your Revit model and showing what they want to tell you. ‘If you want to change that, we’ll have to move this beam.’ ” Internal communication, however, comes via Microsoft Office Communicator. “Any employee can connect with anyone else at the firm just by right-clicking on their name. Communicator is a kind of entry portal into several different kinds of possible connections: instant messaging, Web cam,” Prentiss says. “But we primarily use it for desktop sharing. It’s a live connection to the other person’s screen. The level of conversation immediately is raised. You’re showing rather than speaking.”