Imagine a computer network thats optimized for the delivery
of rich media. Any user at a company could visit the corporate Web site
and stream MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 video files, or large Director movies, with
no delays or hiccups. Need to beef up your employees customer-service
skills? A worker could choose from a long list of training topics, click
on the appropriate icon and stream broadcast-quality interactive video
on a specific subject.
Now heres the technical challenge: How can this happen if the Web
site is located thousands of miles away from the employee, the company
has ordinary Internet connections, and the companys LAN is standard
Ethernet? And what if you want 10, 20 or 30 employees at any location
to be able to access these training videos at any time? Or, say 100 employees
at each of 500 locations need simultaneous access to the same training
Dufault, Starwood�s manager of new media
& Resorts Worldwide, based in White Plains, New York, has figured
out an answer. One of the worlds largest hotel companies, Starwood
has a range of properties that includes Sheraton Hotels & Resorts,
Westin Hotels & Resorts, W Hotels, Four Points Hotels, and Caesars
Hotels & Casinostotaling more than 770 hotels in 80 countries.
The organization is using a new kind of appliance that assists the streaming
of network-based video. In North America, all of the Starwood-owned
properties will receive this appliance, says Ken Dufault, Starwoods
manager of new media. Were in the process now of getting those
appliances shipped, configured and communicating.
The appliance was invented by SightPath, a small startup outside of Boston.
SightPaths technology is so innovative, Cisco Systems bought the
company and its patents in April for $800 million. The SightPath appliances
are placed on LANs, and the files are stored on the appliances hard
drive. Basically, its a little beige box that plugs into the
closet somewhere on the end users LAN, says Bill Churchill,
president of Cosmic Blender, the Watertown, Massachusetts, company that
developed the first of the video-based training applications that Starwood
will deploy on the SightPath appliances. In this case, every hotel
has a small LAN. And this appliance is a plug-and-play device that gets
shipped to each hotel. They find an Ethernet drop for it. They plug it
in and turn it on. Then they give it power and an Ethernet port, push
the on button and walk away. The appliance powers itself up,
logs on and identifies itself to the host studio.
The MPEG video files are distributed over the Internet from a single SightPath
studio which, in Starwoods case, is located at the Starwood Technology
Center in Braintree, Massachusetts. The system is smart enough to analyze
the bottlenecks in the network and send the files when network traffic
is at its lightest. The studio trickle-feeds rich media to these
appliances at night or off-peak hours, says Churchill. It also can
arrange for files to be sent between appliances when that would be faster.
If there are two hotels in Singapore, they could send the rich media
files from one hotel to another, instead of sending it all the way from
Braintree. The appliance will look for the shortest possible route, instead
of having the studio transfer to each appliance around the world.
Because the Studio can distribute its workload, it can service as many
as 1,000 appliances.
All of this is invisible to Starwood employees. The end user goes
to the Web site, scrolls through the text and gets an employee tracking
numberall the normal database things that you can do with a Web
site, says Churchill. The only difference comes when they
click on a request to play something thats rich media. That request
is routed by the SightPath studio to the appliance. In Starwoods
case, the request for an MPEG file is sent to the hotel rather than to
the Web server. The request itself is a small amount of data. Its
routed to the appliance, and the media is streamed from the appliance
over the LAN to the end user.
Covering Your Assets
One of the major benefits of the system is the control it gives Starwood
over its video assets.
The SightPath/Cisco system can be used as an asset-management tool,
says Dufault. We can catalog and store or digitally archive our
videos. We can create a 30-second spot, encode it using MPEG technology,
put it into the studio and distribute it to any hotel. We can slice and
dice our organization so that only Westin people see the Westin content,
and only Sheraton people see the Sheraton content.
Because all the media calls are routed through the Internet or an intranet,
employees can use their usual login names and passwords. The assets
come through the Web-site security, so we have complete control over the
distribution of content and assets, says Dufault. Its
not a complete asset-management system, but it can be part of one.
Currently, Starwood is deploying only one set of network-based training
videos: WineBUZZ 101, produced by Cosmic Blender and Starwoods beverage
director, Andrea Immer. WineBUZZ 101 is a wine training program
thats cross-branded, so its not just a Westin or a Sheraton
program, says Churchill. Every hotel that has a food service
wants to get this kind of wine-training program. We basically did a pilot
overview of the subject, which is going onto every appliance that Starwood
ships to its hotels. It will give their people a sense of how this form
of interactive learning can work. It provides the choice and interactivity
of CD-ROM-based training, along with a threaded discussion group, updateable
workbook and tests.
Even though its direct appeal is limited to the sales and catering staff,
WineBUZZ will allow the hotel departments to see the possibilities of
the system. My job is to market this technology internally,
says Dufault. Ill go to the different departments and say,
This is what we can do for youcheck it out. Hopefully,
some departments will step up to the plate and say, Ive got
this thing I want to dothis training application, or even a communications
toolcan I do this using this technology?
Dufault adds that Starwood is just in the beginning phases of setting
up the system. We havent even gotten all the appliances.
So far, Starwood has ordered 200 appliances and plans to place an appliance
in every one of its company-owned North American properties.
In addition to using the SightPath/Cisco system for training, Starwood
is considering its use for promotional videos. Some of our hotels
have a large-screen television in the lobby, says Dufault. The
SightPath appliance can be fitted with a composite video output, so you
can come right out of the appliance and into the television. We might
have a new promotion, such as stay one night, get one free.
At corporate, we could develop a digital bulletin board or a video. We
could take the video, encode it to MPEG, put it into the studio and set
up a channel that says these Sheraton hotels have appliances, and theyre
connected to televisions in the lobbies of our hotels. We could push the
video out to those hotels and start looping this video in the lobbies.
Our customers could be watching this video clip or a series of videos
playing over and over.