HP SkyRoom

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Announced at the same time as its Z series workstations, SkyRoom is a collaboration and sharing program based off HP's Halo telepresence and Remote Graphics Software (RGS) technology.

Upside

Like many of its workstation products, HP has leveraged its partnership with DreamWorks in the creation of SkyRoom. It's an attempt to bring the high-level Halo capability down to the mid-range, providing a video-conferencing tool allowing up to four participants. This isn't your consumer-level Skype or iChat, however — its focus is on the content creation/CAD industry and collaboration over large distances, and as such allows one of the four participants to share with the others what they're doing in real time on their screen.

This is achieved by the user highlighting a portion of their desktop with a bounding box, anything within that bounding box will be transmitted to the other parties in the video chat. There's two-way security involved here — viewers remain only viewers and cannot interact with the data (meaning ill-educated people cannot ruin a design slaved over for hours), and anything outside the bounding box is not shown (making sure privacy is withheld around personal items like IM windows).

HP claims free solutions don't match the fidelity of its solution using its proprietary codec, and the preview certainly looked impressive from a video quality perspective. Though, the demonstration was, of course, canned and not done through the internet, so it will be interesting to see how the solution copes as network connectivity slowly degrades.

Hardware overlay is supported too, according to HP — whereas most remote desktop solutions will simply show you a blank screen when trying to remotely view 3D or a video, SkyRoom will display the output to all participants without trouble. This makes it incredibly handy for making presentations, or for quickly showing off that multiple GB media file for approval without having to haul the data across continents. It's this quick snapshot of massive, data-intensive projects that may make SkyRoom appealing to some content creators.

A 2GHz, multi-core processor or above is recommended, an attainable solution for most businesses. Presumably this is down to having to decode not only multiple high quality webcam streams but having to deal with receiving potentially large resolution video as well as a part of the desktop capture. Considering the target market is creative professionals, machine horsepower is unlikely to be slim.

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The initial interface is simple enough, presented as a "buddy list" as per common IMs, and highlights when somebody is available for a video call. During the demonstrated call, it appeared as if both webcam streams and desktop streams could be resized within the application window for the user to be able to see things in better clarity.

Jim Zafarana and Jeff Wood from HP demonstrate SkyRoom's collaborative desktop sharing capability (Credit: CBS Interactive)

Downside

HP claims this is all done in high definition, which is a plus, but as usual "high definition" is a wide open term under which the goalposts continuously shift.

While a minimum requirement of "broadband" was defined, HP would not be drawn on what exact speed would be required for an optimal service. Price was also omitted from the discussion, as was any due date more concrete than second half of 2009.

Another potential issue is that users cannot interact with somebody else's desktop stream — this is not a remote desktop solution ala VNC or sharing a screen on a Mac — it looks like it is simply encoding video at the user's end of the desktop and sending it over the network, similar to what Xvidcap does for the Linux desktop, just with a fast and light enough codec to be able to send it over the network and achieve near real-time transmission.

The consequences are that this is not truly a collaboration tool — simply a presentation one in which potential clients or co-workers can give feedback on your progress. The fact that it captures hardware overlay is a definite plus for video and 3D professionals, and it certainly works as a quick preview tool when other participants may not have the software available and installed on their machines. Co-workers in remote locations, however, cannot tweak your design, or provide technical help short of voicing instructions through the webcam.

It is, at this stage, a Windows-only product. Its predecessor, RGS, was available on Linux as well, and considering the amount of production houses using Linux, we'd suggest that a forthcoming version for that platform would be prudent. Mac users have the option of using screen sharing integrated into iChat, which goes some way to replicating SkyRoom's features. It's definitely not the same feature-set, but we'd imagine some people would be happy to make do.

This is the Achilles heel for SkyRoom — it serves a niche market that deals with massive amounts of data on a daily basis. As such it won't have massive reach, and we'd imagine that this could only push the price higher. Still, companies may feel the time it saves will justify the cost.

Outlook

SkyRoom is not "revolutionary" as HP suggests (or "resolutionary" as the marketing campaign would have you believe). It's simply an evolution of existing software and there's already established competitors in the market. Nonetheless for those in the content creation/CAD industry who can't afford the US$700,000 Halo telepresence set up and find themselves spread all over the globe, SkyRoom looks to be a helpful way of increasing cohesiveness in the creative and manufacturing industries. The price will have to be right though — or we'd suspect most companies will deal with a little bit of inconvenience and opt for the free solution.

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