The BlackBerry is now officially old hat. A new, rather more expensive executive toy is winning the hearts of tech-savvy CEOs: the Halo Collaboration Studio.
At $550,000 a room – and thought-leading CEOs will realise they need at least two – this might sound extravagant for a video conferencing system. With the advent of WebEx and other web conferencing systems which users can access from their own PC, many analysts have read the dedicated video conference room its last rites. Expensive and underused, bland rooms with speaker phones and big screens have in many companies been replaced by a humble webcam linked to the Internet.
But this wasn’t good enough for Jeffrey Katzenberg. The co-founder and CEO of DreamWorks Animation, the studio behind computer-animated blockbusters such as Shrek and Shark Tale, had been investigating videoconferencing in 2001 and found neither approach to his liking. So his engineers worked for four years with HP, already a partner on its films, to create the Halo room.
As befitting a filmmaker, Halo is more like a TV studio than a conference room, kitted out with specialist audio, lighting and image calibration equipment. Three huge plasma screens sit opposite three stylish chairs around a semicircular table. Participants see life-size images of their colleagues in other offices, as though all were sitting around the same table. A fourth display can show PowerPoint slides or close-ups of objects on the desk. Private proprietary T3 networks, managed by HP, connect the rooms without time-lagging and are “always on”, for instant meetings.
“We believe there is a personal connection that comes with Halo that just clearly doesn’t come from any other kind of technology we’ve used in the past,” says Steve Reinemund, CEO of drinks giant and early Halo adopter PepsiCo. “Halo is one of the best investments we’ve made to improve the effectiveness of our business and work/life balance for our people.” As with standard conferencing systems, reduced travel is cited as a key benefit.
Other early customers include AMD, Procter & Gamble and Novartis; more are in the pipeline as CEOs enthuse to their peers. At a time when IT budgets are reportedly growing very little, blowing a million dollars upfront and around $18,000 on monthly network fees, on something that can be done for pennies a minute will strike many CIOs as extravagant – but as they have found before, with BlackBerrys and countless other technological fads and gizmos, what the CEO wants the CEO gets.