One of the toughest (and most expensive) parts of working together is getting together: gathering lots of people in the same place at the same time. Not anymore. PlaceWare Inc., a young software company based in Mountain View, California, has released a Web application called Auditorium that lets hundreds of people meet without ever leaving their desks. It's an impressive feat of engineering that sends text, speech, and images over the Net with remarkable speed. But its real virtue is its easy-to-understand interface. By embracing the metaphor of an auditorium, the software lets virtual meetings occur in a familiar place.
"Teams need to connect, and I don't mean in a technical sense," says Garry Orsolini, 45, an engineer/scientist for Hewlett-Packard's Software and Services Group. "I mean connect in the human sense. This is the closest thing to the 'real thing' we've seen."
Auditorium resides on a server and requires a Java-enabled browser. It divides each participant's screen into two sections. One, called "On Stage," displays both the material being presented to the group (for example, PowerPoint slides) and comments from the presenter. The other, called "In the Audience," is a map of the auditorium. It displays a seating chart (complete with rows and seat numbers) and lists the people in your row.
Meetings in a PlaceWare auditorium can be just as interactive as meetings in a traditional auditorium. The On Stage area has a button that lets audience members pose questions during the presentation. The In the Audience area has a voting scale that lets people express opinions. The application even lets participants caucus: users can organize private, one-to-one conversations with people in their row or chat with everyone in the row.
Auditorium works for groups as small as 15 people — or for a cast of thousands. The price per seat goes down as the number of seats goes up. The 100-seat version costs $300 per seat.
Coordinates: PlaceWare, http://www.placeware.com
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.