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Unique NBCU Facility Raises a Smart Bar for Innovation


Media giant hoping to jump-start advances in technology within new center's media labs and virtual hallways


Faced with rapid technological changes in the ways consumers are accessing video, mainstream media companies are increasingly realizing that they must also significantly alter the way they think about technology if they want to keep up and capitalize on the new media landscape. Those imperatives are particularly noticeable in the new NBCUniversal Technology Center in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. The state-of-the-art $17 million, 63,000-square-foot-facillity features many innovative new technologies, with "virtual hallways," "smart bars" and a new Media Labs operation that NBCU is betting will help propel the process of creativity.


With time being of the essence, all these innovations are designed to foster and speed up development. "The NBCUniversal Tech Center is about connectivity, collaboration and creativity," says John Wallace, president of operations and technical services at NBCUniversal, who oversaw the construction and development of the facility. "In designing the facility we chose to have an open plan because we wanted to maximize interaction between employees, and make the center a real focal point for innovation in the company."


Laboratory for Change


The facility's main purpose is to house about 340 staffers from NBCU's core tech and engineering teams that develop new technologies and services. But it also is home to a new Media Labs operation, which will be run by former AT&T technologist Sanjay Macwan.


"We want to focus on driving and accelerating technology that is meaningful both for NBC and the whole content and media industry," says Macwan, senior VP and CTO of Media Labs.


The company still is in the midst of hiring technology experts. But when fully staffed, it will be particularly focused on new technologies relating to content, video, mobile, wireless applications, search, virtualization, e-commerce and consumer experiences.


Some of their work will be on short-term projects, operating much like a tech start-up.  "There will be significant focus on rapid output where they are looking for something in short 30-, 60- or 90-day sprints, rather than marathons" to quickly develop new products, Macwan says.


In other cases, though, the Media Labs will be taking a longer two-, five- and even ten-year look at upcoming technologies and how they might impact existing business models. "If you think about the Internet of things, where all of these devices [link] to the network and the user, there are interesting questions of what will be the role of content in that space five years from now," says Macwan, when asked about some of these long-term projects.


Virtual Paths to Innovation


The layout of the new center can be compared to the open floor plans often seen in Silicon Valley tech start-ups and it employs a number of newer technologies designed to encourage collaboration and speed the pace of innovation, according to Atish Banerjea, executive VP and chief information officer of NBCUniversal.


"We have a lot of the latest mobile, virtualization, big data and emerging technologies from NBCUniversal and Comcast, such as Xfinity platform, at the Tech Center," Banerjea says. "The idea here is to create a more avant-garde environment so our technologists can really drive new technologies."


One example of that is "smart bars" where employees can test out new consumer electronic devices, smartphones, laptops and tables and talk to experts about the equipment and applications. In addition, the Center has lab space where vendors can demonstrate new products before they've hit the market. "It is beneficial to them because they get to market the latest, and it's great and beneficial to us because we get to see things coming to market before they are released," Banerjea says.


The center also incorporates virtual technologies into the building's infrastructure. Cisco Systems is providing technology for Virtual Hallways and telepresence systems in the conference rooms.


That means engineers in New Jersey who are talking to a colleague in the NBCU Times Square facility or its Universal City operation can decide to walk into a "virtual hallway," where they willappear to be standing next to each other.


Such technologies are frequently used by Silicon Valley start-ups with offices in different locations but NBCU has taken it to a whole new level, with state-of-the-art HD video and extremely high-quality sound, Banerjea says. "It is a very immersive experience," he says.


In conference rooms, Cisco telepresence technologies also bring staff together from different venues. "You can be sitting in chars on one side of the table and looking at someone talking and sitting in Los Angeles as if they were in the same room," Banerjea says. "I can feel like I can have my staff from New York, L.A. and New Jersey all in one room."


Siding with Silicon Valley


NBCU's new Technology Center is one of a number of examples of how parent company Comcast Communications and others in the multichannel world are working overtime to build strong ties with Silicon Valley and tech start-ups.


Such efforts are crucial to operators that are increasingly moving to IP-and software-based infrastructures requiring new technologies and skills from Silicon Valley.  To tap into that experience, the MSO runs Comcast Ventures, which invests in tech start-ups and runs an office for engineers and software developers in Silicon Valley.


Sanjway Macwan, senior VP and CTO of the center's Media Labs adds that his area of operation will be working closely with all parts of the company and outside organizations.  "Comcast Ventures and Comcast have quite a presence in Silicon Valley and we will be working closely with them in engaging start-ups and the [venture capital] community," he says.


The Media Labs will also be reaching out to academics and industry organizations, such as CableLabs.  Last fall, the cable industry's research consortium expanded its operations by opening a new office in Silicon Valley.  "Working with CableLabs will help us standardize some ideas so they can be scaled and successfully monetized throughout the industry," Macwan says.

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