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Eric Krapf
Eric Krapf is the Program Co-Chair of the Enterprise Connect events, helping to set program content and direction for the...
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Eric Krapf | April 02, 2008 |

 
   

How Effective Is Telepresence?

How Effective Is Telepresence? Here's my weekly VoiceCon eNews. Go here to get them emailed to you earlier in the week: Inspired by the Al Gore-John Chambers VoiceCon keynote (video here), a lot of the bloggers at No Jitter have been addressing the relative importance and efficacy of telepresence. As usual, Tom Nolle had probably the most interesting take, and one that drew quite a few comments (here). Tom picked up on something that ought to have been obvious from the start about telepresence, yet it's something that I haven't seen remarked on too widely: Many users report being disappointed in the inability to use a whiteboard effectively in a telepresence session.

Here's my weekly VoiceCon eNews. Go here to get them emailed to you earlier in the week: Inspired by the Al Gore-John Chambers VoiceCon keynote (video here), a lot of the bloggers at No Jitter have been addressing the relative importance and efficacy of telepresence. As usual, Tom Nolle had probably the most interesting take, and one that drew quite a few comments (here). Tom picked up on something that ought to have been obvious from the start about telepresence, yet it's something that I haven't seen remarked on too widely: Many users report being disappointed in the inability to use a whiteboard effectively in a telepresence session.

Here's my weekly VoiceCon eNews. Go here to get them emailed to you earlier in the week:

Inspired by the Al Gore-John Chambers VoiceCon keynote (video here), a lot of the bloggers at No Jitter have been addressing the relative importance and efficacy of telepresence. As usual, Tom Nolle had probably the most interesting take, and one that drew quite a few comments (here). Tom picked up on something that ought to have been obvious from the start about telepresence, yet it's something that I haven't seen remarked on too widely: Many users report being disappointed in the inability to use a whiteboard effectively in a telepresence session.Whiteboarding has become a pretty standard expectation for many people who do multi-party multimedia conferencing, and so it's not surprising that they're not satisfied with simply looking at the whiteboard that's in the other folks' conference room without being able to add their own contributions. As Tom mentions, this is a function where higher-resolution images certainly make for less user dissatisfaction, but it's still not optimal.

And to me, it raises a more basic question: What's really the point of telepresence? If it's to make the meeting as much like an in-person gathering as possible, what's the best way to do that?

I don't know if anyone's written a gospel of telepresence. Is it telepresence dogma that the screens must project what's in front of the camera in the opposite room, as a more or less static broadcast? Does it break some telepresence fourth wall if you, say, integrate a whiteboard function as a picture-in-picture display that everyone can contribute to and see?

The message that John Chambers and Sue Bostrom-and, frankly, that Al Gore-put out at VoiceCon, is that Cisco's Telepresence offers a stunning (Gore used the word "spectacular") rendering of the participants in a meeting. And indeed it does. But is realism enough?

Cisco, after all, purchased WebEx, an acquisition that brought along a lot of very intriguing network-based possibilities. But WebEx also brought along a more obvious tool: a very robust meeting application, an interface that millions of people are familiar and comfortable with. I hope Cisco is working on ways to integrate the seemingly pedestrian capabilities of WebEx conferencing with the magic of high-definition video for a more complete telepresence package.

The Cisco telepresence keynote was preceded by Mike Rhodin of IBM, whose keynote included, among other things, a Second Life-like conferencing app demo. As I blogged at the time, these two demonstrations sort of bookended the idea of next-gen conferencing technology, as far as I was concerned.

I think Cisco, HP, Polycom, and any other vendor that's thinking in terms of "telepresence"-i.e., a high-end, high-cost (to be blunt) meeting system-shouldn't just see the technology as an attempt to make the pictures life-like. They should be thinking about making the experience life-like, and that doesn't necessarily mean only realistic pictures; it means a realistic experience, and experiences take place not only in the eyes and optic nerves, but in lots of parts of the brain that combine them in ways we don't understand (or need to understand, for our purposes).

For example, collaborating on a big, wall-mounted whiteboard is something you can do when everyone's physically in the same room; but when there are two or more rooms, it feels not at all unnatural for people to use a computer-based interface to collaboratively mark up a work space of some sort. You could kind of kludge this together now, by having people bring their PCs to a telepresence meeting and concurrently get on a WebEx conference or internal social networking site; but the more elegant solution would be to incorporate it into a telepresence room.

One final note: Several of the other VoiceCon speakers took some swipes at the steep ($300K per room) price tag that telepresence carries. That's fair enough-as far as it goes. But everyone knows telepresence is expensive. Tom Nolle notes that, in his experience, the folks who pay for the full telepresence experience are more satisfied than those who try to cobble together a "telepresence-lite" system.

So the question for your enterprise is whether, even at its steep price tag, telepresence can add value and ROI. And the followup question for the vendors is: How could it add even more value?



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