The Portal…or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Big Brother

Intro

(This post was originally written in February of 2017. See the bottom for updates on the Portal experiment.)

The Portal in its simplest form is a video feed, constantly streaming, between two offices. Either side has the option of muting the feed or temporarily obscuring the camera, but the idea is to devote a large display area for a perpetual connection between two offices.

Why would anyone want to do this and how does this relate to collaboration? Articles and studies frequently pop up praising the benefits of working remotely (check out this collection of interviews related to remote working, as well as this exhaustive collection remote work resources). At the same time, there is a clear positive effect from real, physical interaction (check out this article exploring why the happiest workers come in the office one day a week). So, the question is: “Can technology bridge the remote/human-touch gap somehow?

Streaming a small-screen representation of your head from the perspective of a webcam is not the same effect as full body, in-person interaction.

Since 2004, I have been a remote employee living on the East Coast working for various Bay Area companies. Each year, technology has chipped away at the human-touch problem. At first, interaction was limited to speaker phones, then Windows Messenger and other chat apps started group messaging. Once apps like Skype started allowing video calls, the human-touch solution advanced quite a bit. However, streaming a small-screen representation of your head from the perspective of a webcam is not the same effect as full body, in-person interaction. The Portal aims to normalize those differences.

This is bad.

Method

Ideally, offices could devote an entire wall to a digital projector, displaying the video feed in real-life scale and resolution. Unfortunately, our tests revealed projector technology is not up to par without consuming your entire budget…and even then, it’s noisy.

We found the present optimal solution to be in large displays, mounted at eye-level, with a high-quality webcam (like this one from Logitech for $95). I opted for a 48" Smart TV mounted on a rolling cart.

At its present stage (February 2017), the Portal software is a node.js app, delivering the 2-way video feed via WebRTC. The app runs in the browser, meaning you can connect an existing PC running Portal. We opted to connect a small NUC, dedicated to Portal. There are a few buttons to enable muting the mic or obscuring the camera. More than one office may connect to the same portal, so there is also a “fullscreen” option to enlarge the office with which you’re interacting.


What We Learned

Early Reactions

  • Paranoia about the microphone
  • Concern that I might forget I was being streamed
  • I stopped parts of my normal routine
  • A greater compulsion to stay focused on work (aka Guilt)

After a Few Weeks

  • We formed new routines and habits
  • Disappointment when it would crash
  • My feeling of inclusion significantly improved

Noticeable Shortfalls

  • Reminder of why I work remotely in the first place
  • Oddity of using the same monitor for WebEx calls
  • Annoyance at my new constant availability
  • “Leaving” the conversation is awkward
  • The disconnect when another remote office joins
Each morning, my manager…will stop by “my desk” and have a quick chat. In my 13 years of remote work, this was one benefit of working in the office I never had.

Early Reactions

Paranoia about the microphone

Most of my interaction with the Portal on the first day was spent double-checking if the mic button was muted. You can imagine there are often conversations you’ll have on WebEx that you’d prefer not to broadcast to the office. Sometimes my connection would reload and default to the unmuted option. I ended up installing a microphone on my end with a manual mute button.

Concern that I might forget I was being streamed

Similar to my worries about the mic mute issue, I was nervous that I might forget I was streaming video and do something embarrassing, like make an adjustment to my outfit or rub my nose in a way that looked like a pick.
My family was really worried they’d forget and come into my office in their pajamas or something. I posted a note on my door to solve that issue.

you’ve been warned

I stopped parts of my normal routine

Often, when I hit a mental wall, I’ll pull down one of the guitars hanging on my wall and play it for a bit. Now, I knew this behavior is supported by my manager and Cisco-at-large, but I still felt silly and stopped this part of my routine for a few weeks.

A greater compulsion to stay focused on work (aka Guilt)

Knowing that my peers have a constant view into my office made me feel uncomfortable to check social media, read a magazine or work from my living room. They have to see me working, right? This is not really the Portal’s fault, though. It’s really society’s adoption of the 40-hour workweek myth...but that’s a topic for a different blog post.

After a few weeks

We formed new routines and habits

I say we because these habits were truly reciprocal in nature. Each morning, my manager arrives about 30–45 minutes before anyone else. He will stop by “my desk” and have a quick chat. In my 13 years of remote work, this was one benefit of working in the office I never had.
Others started stopping by to ask a quick question or include me in an impromptu idea jam they were having.

Disappointment when it would crash

I realized I had become dependent on the Portal whenever it would crash. I would have to wait until working hours on the West Coast for it to be restarted. It’s amusing how being refused something makes you want it more. #FOMO

My feeling of inclusion significantly improved

I definitely feel more of a part of my team’s lives since launching the Portal. I get to experience random demos and tours given to our department. I experience the familiarity of scooter guy riding to the kitchen every day. When people quit for the day, I get to wave goodbye…and that in itself gives me a sense of inclusion. 
Recently, a team member was getting ready to leave on his last day, he made sure to stop by “my desk”. It’s the little things like that which simulate the human touch.

When people quit for the day, I get to wave goodbye…and that in itself gives me a sense of inclusion.

Noticeable shortfalls

Reminder of why I work remotely in the first place

I’m not going to lie…the constant noises of the office can be super distracting…whether it’s the hinge on the bathroom door badly in need of oil…or that one person who loves to laugh at 120dB at intervals of 92 seconds.
I guess in that respect, I have something the others should covet: a mute button.

Oddity of using the same monitor for WebEx/Spark calls

I have an SX10 (recently replaced with a Room Kit!) mounted on top of my Portal display, and I use this frequently for meetings. About two weeks in, I realized that every time I switched to my SX10, nothing changed on the San Francisco side…meaning my peers got to experience me talking at them (albeit muted) and making funny gestures.
My current solution is to point the camera out my office window whenever I’m in a meeting. This still feels broken, though, even if it does bless my SF friends with a view into American suburbia.

Annoyance at my new constant availability

One of the huge benefits of working remotely is the freedom to ignore people. If I’m deep into a two-hour coding session, I regularly ignore pings on Spark or emails until I’ve finished. It’s not done out of rudeness, but rather necessity. 
Unfortunately, because I am now constantly visible…it’s easy to assume I’m constantly available, as well. 
Admitting this makes me uncomfortable, though. I don’t want to discourage the “drop-ins”, impromptu chats or quick asks. If I were in the office and needed to focus, I’d throw my headphones on. Maybe some analog for that will naturally arise as time goes on.

I guess in that respect, I have something the others should covet: a mute button

“Leaving” the conversation is awkward

I think this is a social skill we’ll develop overtime, but these casual chats are done over the formal medium of a static mic/camera. This means ending a talk requires physically moving away. 
Doing this in shared space is something we’ve learned to do over time. There a little nuances, like taking a step backwards toward your desk that signal to wrap up a conversation. This subconscious social dance needs to evolve somewhat to include ending casual chats in unshared space.

The disconnect when another remote office joins

The portal is awesome because it stimulates relationship building and collaboration. So, I found it strange that I really dislike when a third person joins the Portal
My 2D monitor works great for 2D portals, but it doesn’t scale out as the dimensions to the portal increase. This feels like problem with an augmented (or virtual) reality solution.


Where To From Here?

Portal 0.1 is not the end product. It’s hardly the prototype. It’s more or less the pretotype. In its current form, it has many constraints…which is a good problem. I have a firm belief that limitations encourage creativity. Here’s some of the creative seeds we are currently considering:

  • Portal AR/VR: either as a compliment or replacement
  • Timeline: similar to Nestcam’s ability to scroll back in time and experience events you missed out on.
  • Applying Machine Learning: How could Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence enhance the Portal in ways traditional approaches could not?
  • Facial Recognition: There are a number of ways identifying faces in the Portal can produce novel features. For example, I could be alerted when one of my peers enters the workspace, or if three or more people are huddled together, that moment could be tagged in the timeline as a possible event.
  • Notifications: intelligent notifications could drive productivity and spark collaboration.
  • Leaving Messages: team members could leave messages for others who are absent or who work in different timezones. Integration with Spark could make this flow seamless.
  • Portal of Portals (VR): Imagine stepping into the SF Portal, turning to your right and seeing the Belfast Portal…turn around and there is the Oslo Portal. Physical distances become a problem of the past.

Update: Portal 1.0 is out…and it’s been rebranded as TeamTV. Head over to teamtv.io and register for a Beta!