A twist of virtual to 'let's do lunch'

Land-based communication allows real-time conversation and creates the illusion that an entire group is together

By Barbara Sullivan

The table is set, the guests have arrived, the waiter has poured the water and iced tea, and the appetizers-crispy fried shrimp and wontons, accompanied by dipping sauces-are being served. "How's the weather?" asks one of the diners, speaking to the deeply tanned man on the other side of the table. 'Just fine." comes the answer. "I just came in from the boat".

The weather is fine? Just in from the boat? But this is Chicago in the dead of winter, where the weather is not fine and there are definitely no boats in the water.

Welcome to the world of teledining.

Three of the diners are in the Palmer House Hilton and two are in the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, Calif.

But thanks to a video mirror and a 92-inch screen. the two groups appear to be sitting around the same table, using identical silver and eating the same food. They can make eye contact, hear each other chewing and carry on a real-time conversation, without the disconcerting momentary delays usually associated with video conferencing.

There aren't any wires, microphones or speakers in sight. Just a bouquet of flowers in the middle of the table that has, if you look carefully, a couple of cameras tucked in with the blooms. And although the participants cannot pass the salt, fax machines at the side of each table let them exchange business cards.

"We call it virtual conferencing," says Scott Allen, spokesman for TeleSuite Corp., a privately held, 3 1/2 -year-old company based in Englewood. Ohio, that has developed the technology. IBM Global Network, a division of IBM Corp., provides telecommunications services and technical support.

Although sitting down together for a meal dramatically demonstrates the effectiveness of the technology, eating, obviously, is not a requirement.

Virtual conferencing is another high-tech wrinkle in the world of video conferencing, geared primarily for business use. Instead of communicating with people in another location via a picture on a television screen-the norm for video conferencing-Telesuite's system creates the illusion that an entire group is together.

The real-time conversation is possible through the use of land-based communication lines, rather than satellite transmission. The two cameras tucked in the flowers each pick up one half of the room; the images are calibrated and produce the life-size figures.

"It's the act of projecting your-self into someone else's virtual reality," Allen said.

Hilton Hotels Corp. has a one-year exclusivity contract (first right of refusal) with TeleSuite, with an option to renew. The first two virtual conferencing TeleSuite systems were installed last June in New York's Waldorf-Astoria and the Capital Hilton in Washington. The Beverly Hills Hilton followed in November, and Chicago's Palmer House came on the TeleSuite network last month. The Hiltons in Atlanta and San Francisco join the network this month.

In addition, TeleSuite is going after corporate locations. NEC Corp. has two installations, including one in northwest suburban Itasca. IBM also has one and is planning to install two more, in Raleigh, NC and Tampa, Fla.

By the end of 1997, the company expects to have 40 locations in the United States and three internationally, and is projecting 600 locations over the next five years.

Looking down the road, Allen says the company sees its virtual conferencing technology being available at such public locations as malls, VIP airport lounges and office parks, as well as hotels and resorts.

The company and Hilton also see a potential for non-business use. It might not replace Chuck E. Cheese as the birthday hangout for the younger crowd, but far-flung families could use the technology for including the grandparents and others in virtual birthday parties and other special occasions, they say.

In fact, according to Allen, in test runs, kids have adjusted to the virtual technology better than adults-grandma and grandpa showing up 1ife-size on a screen to watch them blow out the candles doesn't faze them in the least.

"It's the middle-age businessmen who have the most trouble," Allen said 'They have the most trouble making eye contact. They're sitting there wanting to know how it all works."

The Palmer House's telesuite is located in the lower arcade of the hotel in a room that is decorated identically to the other telesuites in the Hilton network.

Users make a reservation for the room, just as they would make a reservation for a restaurant or hotel room. The standard cost is $199 at each end for 50 minutes. Food, ordered in advance from the room service menu, is extra.

Finally, is there any special etiquette to be observed during a virtual get-together?

Not really, says Allen. Just keep your best side facing the flowers and, if food is served, don't forget to tip the waiter in real time.

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