THERE IS CURRENTLY A MYTH ON THE LOOSE, STALKING America's corporate hallways, showing up on the covers of business journals and horning in on cocktail party conversations: the myth of the Virtual Office.
The notion of the Virtual Office manages to fly in the face of human behavior, of technological history and even of the innate functionality of the tool that itself is supposed to make the Virtual Office inevitable-the computer.
The curious fact is, people actually like being around people. There is something about us that makes us collegial and collaborative, yet the computer is supposed to finish off the office as we know it. And here the irony really starts to thicken. What, after all, has been the major vector in the development of computer technology over the last decade? Connectivity. Which is to say, bringing machines and the people who use them into closer proximity, not isolating them further from one another. Networks. The Internet. The PowerPC. The joint ventures launched by ostensibly bitter rivals. The whole point is to wire us all together.
Why? Why are we cheerfully laying out so much money for these brave new machines, this unprecedented connectedness? Because in our crabbed, anti-social little hearts we all secretly long to labor alone?
Pardon my doubts.
Then again, even if one did determine to create a Virtual Office, it seems to me an ad agency would be a singularly terrible place to try it, and for one obvious reason: creative people. Creatives (including myself, to be sure) are among the planet's least secure human beings. That presumably has something to do with why we're creative in the first place. And one of the ways that an office setting helps keep our insecurity from devouring us is by affording us some certainties-like the knowledge that what's on my wall, in my desk, on my hard drive today will be there tomorrow. That no one is going to take over my space when I'm not around and scramble everything. That this nest, however foul, will stay intact-and stay mine. After all, if I wanted to be an itinerant, I would have majored in Nomad at school and become a U.N. peacekeeper.
Closely related to this is the control over one's solitude. If a certain space is designated to be my certain space, delineated by a door and walls, I have control of interaction. Because sometimes, yes, misery hates company. Conversely, however, once the solution to the great ad challenge of the moment is in hand, is there any creative who doesn't want to have someone else in the place see it, bless it, love it, reward it?
Then again, when you do want to work collaboratively with a partner, working by computer is no substitute at all for face-to-face, in-the-same-room contact. There is simply too much that goes on that cannot be communicated on a screen. This is analogous to the difference between being comfortable and confident with the opposite sex at, say, a party, and dealing with the opposite sex only via CompuServe.
So what are the distinguishing characteristics of the agency of the next decade? Our guess is that it will be built around something we've dubbed the Core Concept, and it's our goal to have this sort of operation in place in three to five years.
The Core Concept takes into account a couple of truths, both of which the Virtual Office blithely ignores. First, that the role of the computer will echo very closely that of its antecedent the telephone. That is, the computer will stimulate not isolation but connectedness. Nor will it serve to disperse the in situ office, but rather will only serve to make that office substantially more efficient and productive. Sure, an agency person on the road, on vacation, at home in the evenings or on weekends will be able to go online with the office via laptop or home-based machine-just exactly as we all call in now by phone in those same situations. But not many of us would consider phoning in to be the equivalent of being physically present in the office. (Even AT&T characterized telephony only as the next best thing to being there.)
The other truth that the Core Concept acknowledges, indeed embraces, is that the amount of information soon to be generated and made available to the desktop will surely dwarf the mountain of it already within reach. Some amazing things will be doable with this torrential inflow of data, but before we get to them it's worth noting that it will take enormous computing power-primarily huge, central servers- to store, process and distribute all that data, and you won't be able to just modem in from your beach house and get more than small bits and pieces of it to play with at any one time (PC bandwidths and processing speeds still being the relatively modest things they are). On the other hand, in an office setting built around a huge core of UNIX-based computational power, every desktop can be hard-wired into the mega-servers and draw down from them at usefully high speeds.
The core we envisage would consist of a ganged series of high-end servers, most likely Silicon Graphics Challenge machines. These machines employ massively parallel processing to deliver blinding speeds and, in Silicon Graphics' own strategic scheme, are positioned to replace several single-function "black box" solutions, like Flame, for instance, or Softimage, with a single, unified processing system.
Armed with this sort of horsepower in the core, it's not difficult to then begin arranging complex specialized suites on the periphery. Thus, the agency will have its own dedicated 2-D and 3-D rooms, audio, video editing and compositing facilities, plus a full-service print production center. Clients will have work presented to them on a large projection TV monitor in the conference area. Meantime, in our creative "white room," staff can literally cover the erasable walls and ceiling with hand-drawn musings and ramblings while staying connected to every other resource in the agency through the room's dedicated computer.
On the next peripheral level are the desktops themselves, and here it's important to note that the desktop arms race is really all but over. PC busses and other hardware, plus DOS itself, are about as fast as they're likely to get, give or take a few milliseconds. The important action now is in the arena of servers and networks, and many of the desktop machines in use today will likely be able to take full advantage of both for years to come. What will differ is the quality and quantity of the data that they routinely pull from the core.
And what is to be done with all this power? In addition to the functions already described, a couple of intriguing notions come to mind. First, imagine a world in which ad agencies sell not only proprietary creative and media solutions, but proprietary "market models" as well. Brokerage houses and investment banks already do this for their big clients, and each jealously guards its own method of selecting, analyzing and coalescing market data into investment scenarios and strategies.
This sort of endeavor takes a hell of a lot of data and a hell of a lot of computers; Wall Street has both, and so almost does Madison Avenue. The advent of checkout scanners, the availability of information from the Internet and the birth of real-time interactive media will combine to generate nonillions of numbers. What will be needed is sophisticated agency talent capable of managing the two elements, then fashioning credible market-model tools from them for the benefit of their clients.
Another possible use is also suggested by Wall Street. Let's say you want to run your client's commercial on TV channel 436, but only between 9 and 9:30 p.m. on a weeknight, and only if you know for certain that there are x-million female suburban viewers, ages 24 to 34, watching. There might well emerge a sort of media stock exchange where you would specify such an order and place your client's bid for the time. Then, when a real-time ratings auditor notifies the exchange that your demographic specs exist right this minute on channel 436, the exchange would check for competing orders, award the time to you, the highest bidder, send a signal down the line to your agency's central server, whereupon it would fire the commercial itself downline to the channel's broadcast center for airing. If that sounds farfetched, consider that newspaper advertising is on the verge of this sort of automated placement right now.
When we started contributing these technology articles to Creativity
five years ago the columns were about earth-shaking ideas like using Macs to set type. Now we're dealing with how best to let technology take over most of what we do. Most, but not all. Because no innovation, be it Neural Systems or the Web or the Virtual Office, will ever survive long enough to make a difference if it ignores the central fact that it exists solely to bring aid and comfort to maddeningly unpredictable human beings. This will ultimately keep technology in its proper place-and us in ours.
Private Creative Offices
Hardware: PowerMac, UNIX Terminal
3-D Software: Microsoft/Softimage CE
2-D Software: Photoshop, Illustrator, Video-conferencing
A small group of writers and art directors skilled in current and new media. These people need private places to think, talk and let ideas germinate. In these offices they will have a powerful workspace with high-speed access to the core and to other team members. Team members out of the office will contribute via network services.
Hardware: SGI Multi-processor CPU
Software: Proprietary market analysis and modeling tools
Aggressive network planners and researchers will have high-speed access to huge archives of information that will expand daily. Analysis of information and the modeling based on it will require massive computational horsepower, which is almost within reach of the average agency.
Hardware: Indigo Z
Software: Microsoft/Soft-image CE
Here creative teams will see their 2-D and 3-D concepts move to a near-finished level of production. This suite will be operated by a highly skilled technician/enabler.
Hardware: SGI Superworkstation
Provides nonlinear editing, digital keying and compositing. It will be run by an enabler specialist.
Hardware: Challenge M Server, Indigo2 XZ, Tourke RIP Server, OPI Server
Everything we learned about print production is being changed yet again by direct-to-digital systems. While ad composition will continue to be an in-house function, back-end manufacturing will increasingly be handled offsite at the publications themselves. We anticipate being completely out of the manufacturing end of production by late 1997.
Hardware: SGI Challenge L and XL Parallel Processors
All of the agency's hardware will be linked to this processing core, and all the machines that comprise the core will be maintained by a single technician. Computing horsepower will be routed as needed to the various tasks going on within the agency. MIPS are the currency we will spend in production, and clients will be charged per CPU cycle.
Creative Play Pen
Hardware: Erasable Markers
Software: Gray Matter
A large space with oversized worktables and spacious walls of white board for creative engineering. Here, those so inclined can literally paint the room with brilliant thinking.
Hardware: Projectors and monitors handling live feeds from servers
Software: Display from virtually any module in the agency
Clients will be presented work on large screens, while servers will allow changes to be executed in real-time, in view of all present. Access to displays