Office space gets new meaning at NEC in Japan

A copier for every 200 employees and face recognition log-on for employees? It's part of the office of the future in NEC's vision.

TOKYO--NEC envisions a world without walls, and not many printers or chairs, either.

The Japanese computing giant has launched a strategy to employ technology to reorganize how work gets done in the modern world and is exploiting its own offices as a showcase.

In a working 500-employee demo that's part of NEC's broadband division, there are no chairs in the conference rooms: Standing cuts down on meeting length. Rather than pass out memos or draw on white boards, employees examine and manipulate documents with collaborative software on plasma screens, which also function as videoconference systems.

Conference "room" is also something of a misnomer, as there are no fixed walls to define the area. The 500 employees who work daily in the environment don't have permanent desks, and copiers remain scarce--there's one for every 200 employees.

Phones have also been banned. Employees place voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls through their laptops, linked to a headset.

"Some people like the traditional handset, so we have a USB handset," said Hiroo Ichii, manager of NEC's second enterprise communications solutions division. "It does take time, but people get used to it."

Like Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and other companies, NEC is deploying these technologies to cut costs internally. Partly because of the results seen at the broadband center, NEC plans to put 30,000 employees on VoIP phones and has a goal of getting 80 percent to use just such a "soft" phone in a laptop in 2005. Overall, the company has more than 100,000 employees.

Additionally, the company believes it can capitalize on its experiences to sell products. The VoIP system runs on its own telecommunications servers, while NEC laptops serve as showcases for security and video applications developed at the company.

Out the window, Ichii pointed at new Sony and Canon office buildings that NEC had outfitted with some of the products and services on display at the center. "We want to introduce new

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