Wormholes and Chromebox for Meetings

CEO @ Novoda developing the world's most desirable mobile products. Kevin has developed for print, web, desktops and mobile and can confirm that they all take a long time to do right.

Frequent and open communication is core to Novoda’s culture. Hipchat is great for the majority of day to day chatter but you can’t beat good old face-to-face speaking. This doesn’t mean endless meetings—in fact, our process recognises only three important meetings: daily standups, fortnightly sprint planning, and retrospectives. Otherwise meetings are kept to a minimum.

Until recently, Novodans were connected through a mish-mash of iMacs, 1st-gen Chromeboxes, random old machines and Android boards. Cheap old iMacs are a good way to start dedicated meetings points but the hardware was getting old. Novodans at both ends of Hangouts occasionally looked like 8-bit characters and the conversation was regularly unintelligible. Having grown accustomed to free telepresence solutions such as Skype and Google Hangouts, we grudgingly admitted a requirement for a paid solutions. Professional networking solutions such as HDFaces, Vu, Vidyo start retail at around $2k per installation. With these services, what you are paying for is dedicated audio/video de/compression hardware/software, along with the infrastructure to support some sort of SLA. Everyone in Novoda speaks to one another and clients all day, every day, and so the cracks were beginning to show with free, non-SLA services. You want as little friction as possible in day-to-day operations and so it became a business priority to start investing in our telepresence. Chromebox for meetings boxes were a welcome upgrade.

Wormholes

“Out of sight, out of mind” is the biggest problem of any distributed team. You might not work everyday with the guy a few desks over, but every now and then you’ll bump into him in the kitchen or in the lounge. Developers and designers within Novoda are all working in-house but the challenge is that they are spread through offices in London, Berlin, NYC, and Liverpool and across multiple teams. Permanent “wormholes” connect common places in each Novoda office. Wormholes are windows across a world of similar work environments. To begin with, each Novoda office has at least one screen permanently dedicated as a wormhole within the common desk space. This is not intended to create a Big Brotheresque working environment any more than your desk being physically next to someone else’s desk. Seeing your colleagues and being able to call over to them allows for a special serendipity that is hard to otherwise emulate without both high-fidelity audio and visuals. In future we’d like to have wormholes for water coolers, kitchens, and and lounges across the world.

Chromebox for meetings

Each Chromebox shuttle is bundled with a camera, microphone/speaker combo, and a remote control. The remote control is the nicest I have seen and is easily the most comfortable way to interact with big television screens with no work surface. The remote offers a qwerty keyboard and quick-mute button access without the tiresome straggling wires of a mouse and keyboard.

Daily use of Google Hangouts in any Google Business domain is summarised by these three URLs:

All meetings are scheduled on company calendars and, as each Chromebox For Business is in a different room, you can add one of the boxes to your meeting to reserve the space of that given room. Each box has an ID and each hangout/meeting has a human readable name. Anyone within the business can type a Hangout name into the portal at ‘g.co/hangouts’ to attend. In our experience, the biggest hurdle to using Chromebox for business has been the education of the three URLs above and the idea that you have to add the Hangout/Chromebox to your meeting if you want to book the room. I recommend sticking notes with the URLs to all the TVs and devices. We went with the naming convention of LDN/BLN/NYC and then the name of the room (for example, ‘LDN-Large-Playroom’).

Overall, if your team is of 20+ people and has three rooms or more to juggle, I’d recommend sticking a few Google Chromebox For Meetings in them. Onwards reading might be a little boring if you aren’t currently using the service. Rather than just singing its praises below, I’ll share some of the services current problems which we hope will soon be addressed.

Chromebox for meetings issues (28/09/14)

Licence per box?

Each user upon a Google for business domain is charged for their access to the network and services of Google, which seems fair. It is however unclear why after a business buys a Chromebox for meeting then has to pay an additional annual fee for each box. It seems that business users are already paying for each employee, I’m not sure why Google would think it fair to charge for those employees to speak with one another through previously paid for hardware.

Hangout Invitations by nobody?

Should someone invite others to a chrome box call in progress the email says you are “invited by nobody”. This is confusing and impersonal.

Timezone issues / US Address needed

We needed a US address to register our Chrome boxes, but this isn’t the issue. Our first three chrome boxes were successfully set up in London, but when we tried to set up the boxes in Berlin we received the error: “Invalid timestamp”. Choosing the timezone as “British summer time (BST) during setup allowed for us also to run 2 chrome boxes successfully in Berlin.

Ad-hoc meetings and general confusion

All meetings are expected as calendar entries. Everything should be scheduled within a calendar. If anyone within the google apps domain of novoda.com is invited to a meeting they can add the chrome box to their meeting and benefit from the convenience of a mic/speaker, big screen combo. However, sometimes clients or colleagues just call via Google Hangouts. If no meeting invite exists, there is no way to give an in progress meeting a ‘name’ or any way by which during an ad-hoc meeting they can add the chrome box in the room within which they are sitting. As an attendee you can send invites from the meeting but otherwise others cannot attend. This needs to be addressed and in general is our biggest criticism.

Audio / feedback problems

The Mic and Speaker bundled within one hardware component is a great innovation and handles the majority of feedback problems. Feedback problems happen when there is a loop of audio from a speaker being fed into the mic producing the audio. Having both the Mic and speaker in one will be able to handle these issues in one place. The Mic is meant for 4 people around a conference table not 10 people in a large room. Occasionally we have switched to a blue snowball for clearer audio in a bigger space with more people (stand ups) but sometimes everyone complains that this sounds quieter and more echo’s. The bundled speaker is really very good in all 1-4 meetings where generally one person is speaking but if there are multiple people in a room the blue snowball is generally better but the jury is still out on a large group solution. We have it on good advice we have to put the speaker as far away as possible from this microphone to minimise feedback.

Refused Meeting invitations

We are unsure as to why a hangout box could refuse someone an invitation but occasionally people complained that their meeting invites had been declined when adding a room to the calendar.
Initial setup login confusion, who should login to a chrome box for meetings?

Each hangout box has been allocated a room. Upon setting up a chrome box we were asked for a login. We were unsure as to who should login to the box and so we have used one shared account through out all the meeting boxes across the world. We are unsure if this is the intended setup.

Wormhole calendar invites

Hangouts are meant to start and end over a specific amount of time. They do not cater for perpetual hangouts like our “wormholes”, these sit as annoyingly refused invites, taking up space in my calendar as refused meetings otherwise I wouldn’t be able to schedule anything which conflicted with them as they are all day event.

Hangouts cutting out

Wormholes are supposed to remain open all day long as a constant window into another workplace and allow for workmates to dynamically chat with one another. For some reason the meetings keep cutting out after a time. Perhaps they think that no one is around.

Can’t join a meeting in progress outside allotted time?

Meetings run over, all the time. Perhaps it could be seen as a feature that once a Google Hangout in progress runs over it’s allotted calendar time you can no longer join it’s meeting. Unfortunately such a heavy handed approach will likely cost some companies reputation as another paying client can’t join your meeting and you have to insinuate they aren’t important enough to interfere with your timekeeping.

Meeting name privacy

Chromeboxes display all of their daily meetings upon the screen with a nice backdrop behind them, this is not appropriate for sensitive meeting titles. Some meeting titles reveal clients and projects and so should not be revealed openly within the list of meetings.

Attendees outside a domain

Only those within the Novoda domain can invite people to hangouts this took a while to be understood. If someone is attending from outside the company this should be signposted more strongly upon the screen. Hovering over the contact reveals their textual representation. We suggest something stronger is required, a different border perhaps red around all attendees who are outside the App domain.

Hangout invite auto-completion

When adding additional members to a call in progress it should be expected that additional rooms which have chrome boxes and domain users will be regular invites. A simple list of all the chrome boxes available within a domain would be helpful, clicking a chrome box would add it to a call. Also inviting many team members to a call is a tiresome process via the invites during an in progress call, some sort of auto completion should exist which at least pre-empts @novoda.com addresses within the domain of Novoda.

Google Wallpapers & Screensaver

When no meeting is in progress, a Google Chromebox for meeting displays the same portal as attending g.co/hangouts where the backgrounds cycle through an attractive selection of wallpapers sourced by an editor at Google. All the wallpapers upon the screen are from Google plus images are very attractive but the company which has paid for both the hardware, the licence fee and all the users should surely be able to customise these images. Additionally the screensaver keeps kicking in and there are no timeout options available. The screen saver should be configurable as to whether it is ever required.

Patchy images while presenting

Visiting g.co/present from any machine allows a participant to stream their screen, which is neat. But streaming in our experience has always been very ropey. You couldn’t for instance share a video or benefit from animations in your slides. If you were relying upon the screen for cues you would quickly fall out of sync.

Overall, again I think Chromebox for meetings are pretty good and I do hope Google will soon get around the fixing these issues. Here is a pic of Ryan presenting over a hangout one lunchtime.

Note: I'm aware also of Highfive and would love to hear of others experiences: https://www.highfive.com

About Novoda

We plan, design, and develop the world’s most desirable Android products. Our team’s expertise helps brands like Sony, Motorola, Tesco, Channel4, BBC, and News Corp build fully customized Android devices or simply make their mobile experiences the best on the market. Since 2008, our full in-house teams work from London, Liverpool, Berlin, Barcelona, and NYC.

Let’s get in contact