Ambient Video Awareness…Big Idea? Or Big Brother?


One of the lures of web working is that we have the privacy to let our creativity and productivity flow at its own pace and in its own style. One of the disadvantages of web working is that we lose the visual cues that let us know what our co-workers are doing at any given time. Jon Udell reports on a project by the Center for New Media called Hexagon that attempts to address this shortcoming in the remote worker’s environment by creating a persistent video presence:

The idea is that a distributed team of webcam-equipped collaborators monitor one anothers’ work environments — at home, in the office, on the road — using hexagonal windows that tile nicely on a computer display.

The software itself is a prototype and not currently available, but there is a public demo to try out. For remote teams that work closely on projects, something like Hexagon has the potential to save countless “Are you busy?” “Have a sec to talk?” and “Not now, I’m on the phone.” IM messages. You can see for yourself whether a person appears to be accessible…just like popping your head over their cubicle.


Hexagon hasn’t caught on, according to the chief researcher behind the project. Perhaps it’s because the project appears more voyeur than collaboration in its current form. For now, setting our IM status accurately and calling on-demand web conferences will have to suffice.

Isolation and loneliness are two of the biggest challenges to the web worker life. For many, it’s the barrier to entry. We use things like IM, video chat, email and Twitter to keep ourselves present and connected to our professional world…how close can technology get to the real thing before it’s just too much information?

Would you be willing to give up working in your underwear in exchange for increased visual connection to your co-workers?



I guess I am in the minority here, because I prefer the freelance tech life, which is why I chose it. I don’t mind the team, but I prefer to work remotely, in my own office, away from the office politics, social interactions (distractions), and all those really chummy trapings that slow down productivity. I think the video presence could be useful in certain situations. Not because I like to work in my underware (I believe that dressing for work is part of the dedication it requires to stay focussed on the project), but because I prefer not to be distracted from my work by chatty co-workers. that is the number one reason I gave up the cubical life. After reading the comments I realize that most people like personal contact, so I guess I am in the minority here, which just suits me fine.

Neal Watzman

I can’t see where such software is actually going to address the problem of isolation and the lack of personal contact. Only people actually talking to each other can help with that.

It seems to me that this is another case of throwing technology at what is fundamentally a people issue. We don’t need software or webcams, we need to be able to talk, communicate and interact more with each other.



You’ll find that those that experienced the (g)olden days of CU-SeeMe reflectors and early iVisit beta were very acquainted with the possibilities that centralized video destinations represented. Just 10 years ago, the key concept was that with just a cam, a PC or Mac, and pre-broadband speeds you were able to jam a lot of visual information in a 160×120 pixel greyscale representation of “you” and others. Extreme low cost and a confirmed destination to hang out in were perfect for social teams — and possibly business teams in closed environments.

Microsoft Office Roundtable, Cisco Telepresence like solutions might represent a way to involve the remote team and team members. I’m not clear these will depart from the meeting room location or dedicated hardware systems but they will be relatively cheap compared to say a high end system (Lifesize). By contrast, the traditional high end solutions based on Polycom and Tandberg components are out of reach for remote workers typically.


I’ve been on a flexi-job for over 5 years now, and can appreciate the joys and drawbacks of working from home. I think something like Hexagon can really help to make home-work a more social, less caveman-like existence. So long as I have the ability to switch it off when I want to work in my pyjamas!


As much as I like working in my underwear, I still feel like I miss something when I work from home for a few days. I think its that interaction that happens when you see someone face to face. I am in a highly tech position, and its also nice to have the ability to grab someone really quickly to run to your desk and take a look at something. I know these things can be over come remotely, but its just not the same for me.


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